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Mental Health Awareness Week | Bullying - Jamie Forsyth

Jamie Forsyth, Safer Highways resident Mental Health coach takes a frank and honest look at workplace bullying and the culture within our industry and its impact on Mental Health.


I’ll just let you think about that word for a moment

When most of you reading this saw that word, I imagine your minds were transported back to a time, years ago, on the school playground or classroom.

While no bullying is acceptable, most of us would like to think that school is the only time this would be taking place. Unfortunately for a large percentage of employees, this is simply not the case. With workplace bullying on the rise and the ‘great resignation’ in full swing, employees are changing their priorities at work. For our current and future workforce, how an organisation approaches employee wellbeing is becoming a key reason to take on or leave a role.

Bullying at work is a major workplace problem that makes the daily working lives of many workers intolerable. Workplace bullying can lead to ill-health and work-related stress, it affects morale and is the cause of untold misery to workers.

So, before we can explore the effect of workplace bullying on our mental health and wellbeing, we need to know what they are.

In a nutshell workplace bullying is a persistent pattern of mistreatment from others in the workplace that causes either physical or emotional harm leading to intimidation and offence. This can manifest itself in several ways such as verbal, non-verbal, psychological, and physical abuse as well as humiliation.

Workplace bullying can take many forms, and as a result, it’s not always easy to recognise straight away. In fact, in some workplaces, it is so ingrained into the culture, that it is often projected to employees as something else or simply not recognised as unacceptable behaviour.

While your stereotypical school bully is all about physical abuse, the psychological abuse within the workplace can be equally and potentially more damaging. It can be as subtle as overt or veiled threats or fear-inducing communication and behaviour or as blatant as belittling, persistently disparaging someone or their opinions, ideas, work, or personal circumstances in an undeserving manner.

So, when does bullying become harassment? Well ACAS say “Harassment is when bullying or unwanted behaviour is about any of the following 'protected characteristics' under discrimination law (Equality Act 2010): age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation.

So how do we know there is an issue? Well, the statistics are there for everybody to see. According to a YouGov Poll (for the TUC), 29% of people have been victims of workplace bullying. That’s around 9 million of the UK’s workforce! To put that into perspective that’s the population of Scotland and Wales together! A UNISON survey backs this up with 60% of the 6000 respondents reported either experiencing or witnessing bullying in the workplace and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitrary Service (Acas) revealed that their helpline receives 20,000 phone calls every year concerning bullying.

These numbers are not acceptable in any industry but does the demographic of the UK highways and construction industry mean we have a bigger fight on our hands than most? In my opinion, yes it does.

Whilst in recent years there has been more of an effort towards understanding the benefits that Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion play in our workplaces, we have been and continue to be very much a male-dominated, ageing industry. There is a perceived view that there are pockets of “boys at the top” club culture, run by dinosaurs and with those pockets can come very draconian views, practices and intimidating psychologically unsafe workplaces. These types of environments breed fear of airing any concerns regards discrimination, bullying, harassment, and mental health issues, which ultimately means staff just won't reach out when they need to call out unacceptable behaviour.

If we are not encouraging a step away from this culture, then we will continue to have the same problems which have become rife in the industry. Problems such as labelling bullying behaviours as ‘banter’. Just because ‘banter’ doesn’t constitute all the elements of bullying doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. All offensive, threatening, violent and abusive language and behaviour are always unacceptable, whatever your role. All this does is undermine the emotions and impact this type of verbal bullying can have on the individual.

Phrases that have become commonplace like “ooooh don’t worry he’s always like that” or if they don’t take the piss out of you it means they don’t like you” need to be challenged and shown to be unacceptable otherwise you just encourage the “man up” ‘get on with it’ culture we have worked so hard in the last 5 years to move away from.

Every organisation within our industry will have an Anti-Bullying policy I’m sure but is it enough to simply state on a piece of paper what is acceptable or not?

Challenging bullying at work can be difficult, especially where it is accepted as part of the culture. If we think back to those with protected characteristics, for instance, it’s incredibly important to take the individual's feelings into account. If they feel they’ve been embarrassed or emotionally upset or affected by what’s been said to them then that must be taken seriously and classed as bullying.

It is so important that bullying is raised and tackled at the earliest possible opportunity. If we don’t then it goes on and more stress and suffering is placed upon the person being bullied and colleagues who have witnessed, it. Victims do not speak out about bullying because they fear that the bullying will only get worse if they do, or that they will not be believed, which will ensure it gets worse.

The only way to stop this is to ensure that bullying does not become an accepted culture. We need to make our workplaces safe places. We need to challenge when unacceptable behaviours occur, whether it’s the behaviour or actions of a CEO of a large company or an apprentice school leaver, when it is challenged, we need to take it seriously. We need to encourage diverse and equal workforces so that stigma and prejudice become a thing of the past.

Following their mental health survey, Stefano Lobban, Director at Herts Tools, said:

“The findings from our survey highlight that the workplace could be doing more. They could encourage workers suffering to come forward and share their experiences of poor mental health issues and/or bullying by having more confidentiality measures in place. Companies could look at investing in workplace surveys, private spaces, and more wellbeing measures, to allow workers to share any personal issues in a safe and supportive environment.”

If we are going to make workplace bullying a thing of the past then It’s not only about clearly defining what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, but also about creating a culture that gives people the opportunity and confidence to speak up when something unacceptable takes place, without the fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.

If you would like to get in touch regards this subject or anything else, then please contact me at

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