Is your office ‘banter’ actually bullying, and causing anxiety at work?


To mark Mental Health Awareness Week and its theme “anxiety”, we’re covering one of the workplace topics that doesn’t get enough recognition for the anxiety it causes, both in terms of intensity and prevalence: bullying.

“I was in a constant state of anxiety,” says Toni Finnimore, Founder of business volunteering facilitator The Social Society, of her experiences of bullying at work.

Toxic environments are a huge source of anxiety

She’s experienced it both personally, and within teams she’s managed, taking legal action against two organisations, one which involved calling out an individual bullying a group:

“On a personal, ethical and moral level, I was managing a team of people that were clearly suffering and there was a need to challenge this behaviour. Working in such a toxic environment had a huge impact on both myself and my team and health and happiness are far too important to ignore.”

Finnimore describes the specifics of the impact, in addition to general anxiety, as: her team constantly doubting their abilities; loss of confidence and self-esteem; reluctance to put views forward; and the ever-present feeling of “walking on egg shells”.

Even for confident employees, calling out is stressful

“People were scared of this individual and feared challenging this behaviour,” she says.

While Finnimore considers herself a confident manager, who felt committed to challenging the bullying behaviour, she admits that the experience took a great toll on her own anxiety levels:

“Irrespective of how confident I was in myself and my ability to challenge poor practice and behaviour, it came with its own stressors. Work colleagues would ostracise me and cut me out of key meetings, for example. The positive comments and thanks for acting the way I did, only came after the person had left the organisation. I was lucky to have a caring group of family and friends around me at the time but, regardless, it had a big impact on my wellbeing.”

Record numbers of bullying cases

While it might be tempting to write Finnimore’s experiences off as unusual and rare, unfortunately this is not the case. Recent studies abound of bullying at work reaching record high numbers, such as one from law firm Fox & Partners showing that bullying claims rose from 581 to 835 between March 2021 and March 2022. Some experts argue that this is because the virtual working world has opened up new doors for bullying and harassment.

The increase in women reporting bullying and harassment is particularly notable and worrying, with almost two thirds of young female employees saying they have experienced sexual harassment, bullying or verbal abuse, according to a survey by the TUC published earlier this month. These damaging trends are contributing to the problem of female burnout, talked about in this feature.

Bullying is widespread, insidious and unchallenged

Psychologist and author Angela Karanja did her degree dissertation on workplace bullying, based on a metanalysis, in 2017 and doesn’t believe the situation has improved in the last 6 years. Indeed, the research would suggest it has got worse.

She was shocked to discover how widespread, insidious and unchallenged bullying at work was/is:

“There were two main things I found: that bullying is very prevalent and very under-reported. But, even worse, I found that it’s making people sick and anxious, and it occurs across the board of an organisation because it’s linked to culture. It’s also linked to presenteeism, where employees are there, but not really there because they’re not productive. If you don’t feel like going to work because you’re being bullied, it’s unlikely you’ll be very enthusiastic, feel good or give your best.”

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Bullying can be subjective

Common descriptions of bullying she came across in her research include things like colleagues arranging meetings without you, or your supervisor taking credit for your work, or even discounting your input altogether.

“When you invalidate someone, that is a form of covert bullying,” she says. “Obviously this issue is quite subjective, but we should never invalidate other people’s feelings.”

And that’s exactly the problem with bullying at work: there are not enough, or clear definitions, about what bullying is, which leads to employees feeling unsure of whether they should call behaviour out or not, increasing their anxiety further. For that reason, lobbyists are currently campaigning to make bullying unlawful.

Bullying at work is not technically illegal in the UK

Organisational Culture Specialist Bella Ikpasaja explains the legal situation:

“While there is no legal definition of bullying in the UK, ‘harassment’ is illegal,” she says. “Specifically by the law of the Equality Act 2010. Therefore anyone that experiences bullying would need to show that the behaviours were of a harassing nature. For example, if someone is bullied because of their disability and the behaviours they experience violates their dignity.”

Essentially, bullying to be recognised by law needs to be related to certain ‘protected characteristics’, such as those related to gender/ sexuality/ disability, for instance, or involve sexual harassment. This leaves gaping holes of uncertainty, where bullying can flourish or, as Ikpasaja describes these interactions, “forms of incivility”, a topic she’s been studying since 2018 and has also found to be “widespread” even in the “unlikeliest of companies”.

No coincidence that phrase ‘toxic culture’ is commonplace

Consequently, a core part of her work is designing policies for, and raising awareness of, employee safety on this front, pertinent given that the CIPD cited “interpersonal conflict and uncivil behaviour” as major HR issues in its 2022 review.

Through her work advising companies, especially those with frontline workers – such as healthcare, housing, NGOs and transport – she’s had disclosures including bullying, harassment, discrimination, and stalking.

“Sometimes the risk is within the organisation, from a senior team member or peer-to-peer. It’s no coincidence that the term ‘toxic culture’ has made its way into workplace language,” she says. “Although employers have a legal duty of care towards their employees, not nearly enough companies take bullying seriously.”

Companies ignore or gaslight

In her experience, most companies ignore the issue or, worse, gaslight workers that report bullying, harassment, discrimination or any form of incivility. “Sadly, denying and deflecting are what I hear from employees with lived experiences and I witness the toll that incivilities take on workers’ mental health,” she says.

Luckily, there are a few examples of companies proactively addressing this pervasive issue, rather than lackadaisically leaning back on the inadequate legal framework. They are creating their own frameworks of acceptable behaviour, starting at the grassroots to ensure the seeds of bullying are not able to establish any roots.

Banter and bullying

They are starting with seemingly harmless ‘banter’ and microaggressions. Mark Lomas, Head of Culture, Lloyd’s of London, spoke to us about this in this article here, where he talks about the toxicity of banter, often a mask in British corporate culture for those in power to disempower those who are not. “Generally, in British business that still falls along race and gender lines,” he says.

He is passionate about creating an environment in which employees feel safe speaking up about anything, from the big things like discovering fraud, but more commonly and importantly the everyday “small things” like decisions leaders make.

Speak-up cultures stop bullying in its tracks

Creating a speak-up culture in itself is a powerful step to stamping out bullying because – unlike Finnimore’s devasting experience outlined at the start of this article – victims will be supported and every effort will be made to help them feel psychologically safe. Lomas explains how he takes pains to build up this trust with employees and recognises the huge importance of taking action on the back of instances where people do pluck up the courage to challenge the status quo.

“An inclusive culture is where inappropriate behaviours aren’t tolerated,” he says. “You can have a joke or ‘banter’ with people that you know very well. But in an office environment you have to be very careful that you don’t necessarily know everybody as well as your friends.”

Inappropriate comments are different for everyone

What constitutes inappropriate behaviour could be different for everyone. That’s exactly what Sally Pritchett, CEO of creative communications agency Something Big, winner of our Make A Difference Award for ‘Best Culture of Psychological Safety 2023’, has found.

She is committed to addressing microaggressions, so she organised a session where, after the group discussed the definition of these, they discussed what they constitute for each of them as individuals.

“We asked people to talk honestly, within their little groups, about things that others had said to them, at work and outside, which offended them,” she says. “Something that may have been said without intending any hurt. And wow! That was so powerful.”

Baldness, family plans and ‘ginger’ jokes

Employees opened up about everything from being teased for being bald to being asked if they’re going to have a second child to ‘ginger’ hair jokes. Pritchett then pulled together all this data and now shares it with new recruits when they start, so they know what constitutes a microaggression for colleagues; clearly a much more manageable task for a 30-something strong workforce than for a large multinational. But not impossible.

Pub vs work banter

Pritchett admits that this work on microaggressions is “hard” because you don’t want to get rid of all the “fun team chatter”. The way she’s squared this in her mind is remembering that:

“The difference between pub banter and work banter is that if you don’t like the pub banter, you can go home, or to a different pub. With work banter we don’t have that luxury, our livelihoods depend on work, so as a leader I am responsible for that banter and being clear about what is acceptable in the workplace. I have to protect everyone to make it an inclusive environment.”

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