Cyberbullying in the workplace ‘worse than conventional bullying’

2 November 2012

Cyberbullying – using modern communications technology such as e-mails, texts or web-postings to abuse people - is as common in the workplace as ‘conventional’ bullying.  Yet, the way cyberbullying influences both the victim and witnesses are more hidden in the workplace according to new research by occupational psychologists.

The results of a study by Dr Christine Sprigg, Dr Carolyn Axtell and Sam Farley of the University of Sheffield, together with Dr Iain Coyne of Nottingham University, will be revealed at a seminar during the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Festival of Social Science in November. They shine a light on this relatively new phenomenon.

Until now the impact of cyberbullying has mainly focused on younger people in environments such as schools rather than adult workers.

The researchers will reveal suggestions on how employers should tackle and prevent cyberbullying in the workplace. This will become more important as communication technologies continue to evolve and become more widespread.

The study included three separate surveys among employees in several UK universities, asking people about their experiences of cyberbullying.

"We gave people a list of what can be classed as bullying, such as being humiliated, ignored or gossiped about, and asked them if they had faced such behaviour online and how often," said Dr Coyne.

Of the 320 people who responded to the survey, around eight out of ten had experienced one of the listed cyberbullying behaviours on at least one occasion in the previous six months. The results also showed 14 to 20 per cent experienced them on at least a weekly basis – a similar rate to conventional bullying.

The research team also examined the impact of cyberbullying on workers' mental strain and wellbeing. "Overall, those that had experienced cyberbullying tended to have higher mental strain and lower job satisfaction," Dr Coyne said. "In one of our surveys, this effect was shown to be worse for cyberbullying than for conventional bullying."

The research team also found that the impact of witnessing cyberbullying was different than that seen for conventional bullying. "In the research literature, people who witness conventional bullying also show evidence of reduced wellbeing. However, in our research this does not appear to be the case for the online environment," Dr Coyne said.

"Witnesses are much less affected. This might be because of the remote nature of cyberspace – perhaps people empathise less with the victims. This could affect the witness’s reaction to the bullying and potentially whether to report it or otherwise intervene."

The results of the research, which was partly funded by Sheffield University Management School, will be presented at a seminar to business representatives. "We believe our research will likely have implications for the way that employers formulate policies and guidelines relating to cyberbullying, and the seminar will be an opportunity for us to discuss our findings and learn about the experiences of other employers," Dr Coyne said.

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Notes for editors

  1. Event: Punched from the screen: workplace cyber-bullying
    Organiser: Dr Christine A Sprigg, Institute of Work Psychology (IWP), Management School, University of Sheffield in collaboration with the Institute of Work, Health and Organisations (I-WHO), University of Nottingham.
    Date: 7 November 2012
    Venue: Showroom 5 at the Showroom Workstation, 15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield, S1 2BX
    Audience: Event for professionals
    For more information: Punched from the screen: workplace cyber-bullying
  2. The research project involved surveying staff in universities in the UK with a questionnaire relating to experiences of bullying behaviour and its consequences. Three separate surveys were carried out, focusing on different themes. A total of 320 responses were received. 
  3. The Festival of Social Science is run by the Economic and Social Research Council and takes place from 3-10 November 2012. With events from some of the country's leading social scientists, the Festival celebrates the very best of British social science research and how it influences our social, economic and political lives - both now and in the future. This year’s Festival of Social Science has over 180 creative and exciting events across the UK to encourage businesses, charities, government agencies, schools and college students to discuss, discover and debate topical social science issues. Press releases detailing some of the varied events and a full list of the programme are available at the Festival website. You can now follow updates from the Festival on twitter using #esrcfestival.
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.