A new study of British university employees concludes that targets of workplace cyberbullying often fare worse than those who experience traditional bullying. Victoria Revay reports for Global News (link here):
In three separate surveys, 320 British university employees were asked to document their experiences with cyberbullying. The study results showed that victims of cyberbullying tended to have “higher mental strain and lower job satisfaction” as compared to traditional bullying.
According to Revay, human resources professor Aaron Schat of McMaster University in Canada, interpreted the results this way:
He says the challenge with cyberbullying in the workplace may be that it lacks a so-called safe haven, or a physical area where the victim can take refuge to avoid the bully. He says this may also be the reason why victims feel more emotionally distressed.
It all makes sense, and it echoes what we know about bullying in schools, where many of the most horrific stories have included online abuse. Just like kids who go home and stay in touch with classmates via e-mails, text messages, Facebook postings, we adults go home and log onto our work e-mail accounts.
For better or for worse (and there’s a lot of each), many of us order and conduct much of our lives with our laptops, tablets, and smart phones. This alone makes us more susceptible to partaking in online exchanges gone haywire.
Online lives at work
Especially in service-sector occupations where practically everyone works with a computer, it makes sense that cyberbullying looms large. Group memos once delivered via interoffice mail are now sent to our inboxes. Individual and small group discussions once conducted via face-to-face meetings or phone may now be held via e-mail or discussion board.
Many of us have been on the giving and receiving end of e-mails and online exchanges that, intentionally or not, quickly escalated into unpleasantries. It’s so easy to dash off a snippy reply and hit “enter” or “return.” And when someone directs a barb or dig at us, we sit before our screens and feel our blood boil.
When the dynamics of workplace bullying enter the picture, the power differentials between verbally skilled aggressors and their targets can become magnified, and the words on the screen take on an obsessive life of their own.
What do to
As with bullying at work generally, there are no magic answers for those who are experiencing workplace cyberbullying.
Revay concludes her article with collected advice from workplace experts:
Try to find a safe haven
Talk to peers
Ask for affirmation
Document the abuse
Don’t reply to bullying messages
The list contains sensible stock advice for dealing with bullying situations, but the final two are especially significant:
First, do more than document the abuse. Make sure you save and print out the offending online exchanges or postings. Especially with indirect or passive-aggressive forms of bullying, context is everything. Our increasing “cyber-literacy” means that a lot of people can read an online exchange and understand the point at which it crossed the line and became extremely abrasive or even abusive. (Sadly, it’s like watching a verbal train wreck unfold before our very eyes.)
Second, the final point — “Don’t reply to bullying messages” — is worth expounding upon. Keep any responses steady and measured, and by all means avoid an emotional response that will lead the aggressor(s) to label you as the “bully.” Don’t try to “win” the exchange or insist on having the last word, because the aggressor wants to goad you into going overboard. If you’re at home, log out of your work e-mail account and give yourself some distance from what’s going on.
Remember, those who are skilled at online verbal abuse and conflict generation often are very good at what they do. They instinctively know how this medium can be used to push the buttons of targets, sometimes by making references that sound innocuous to bystanders but are loaded with meaning to targets. Whenever possible, disengage, don’t take the bait. This will not fix the bigger problem confronting you, but it may provide you with some emotional control over a nasty situation.
A sort-of safe haven
Okay, maybe it’s hard to avoid checking our work e-mail from home or elsewhere. Or perhaps you telecommute. Regardless, this is yet another reason for all of us not to rely on our work e-mail addresses as our primary personal ones, especially with free or low-cost e-mail alternatives readily available. Get a separate e-mail account for personal use, and don’t use it as an alternative or backup work address.