What Really Causes Workplace Bullying?

New Zealand workplaces have one of the highest rates of bullying in the world.

A lot of people know bullying is a significant problem in New Zealand schools, but what many people may be surprised to learn is that New Zealand workplaces have one of the highest rates of bullying in the world[1].

Bullying has been identified as a workplace hazard and under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, employers must try to prevent it. In the past few years, many companies have spent large sums of money on trying to address bullying. Unfortunately, this seems to have had little impact on rates of bullying in New Zealand workplaces.

Could there be a reason why these workplaces are not making progress? Many anti-bullying programmes focus on teaching kindness and empathy. Is this really addressing the causes of bullying? Or could something else be the cause of this?

Researchers have found there is a strong link between poor sleep and workplace bullying[2]. It is not just workplace bullying that may increase with poor sleep; one study found there was a 58% rise in domestic violence and aggression after the perpetrator had a poor night’s sleep[3]. We all know that when we are tired, we have shorter tempers and we are often far more irritable than when we are well rested. We tend to be far more impulsive when we are sleep deprived; a well-rested person may think about saying something unpleasant, but then they may think better of it. A sleep deprived person may say it without thinking about the consequences. Furthermore, we know people find it much harder to control their emotions when they are sleep deprived; it is not justification for bullying but it may be a cause.

Maybe workplace anti-bullying programmes are ineffective because they don’t focus on one of the primary causes of bullying - poor sleep. In the modern world it seems more and more adults are having sleep problems[4].

If we want to truly reduce rates of bullying in New Zealand workplaces, we must start addressing one of the root causes which is poor sleep. The good news is that almost all sleep problems are manageable or curable with the right help and support.

Continuous and full sleep is really important. The most restorative part of sleep happens in the last 60-90 mins of sleep, so losing one hour at the end of sleep has a much greater impact than the percentage lost.

I have suggested to employers that when they interview staff, they should ask whether the person is a morning or evening person. Respecting people’s natural sleep cycle and giving evening people later start times could prevent many sleep problems and hence bullying before they even start.

Another important thing we should teach all staff is to sleep with their phones on silent or on flight mode. We know that being woken up many times throughout the night is worse than short sleep! So full and continuous sleep is vital.

Rather than calling in lawyers for disciplinary action over bullying, maybe we should start sending the bully to their GP to look at sleep.

There is a specialist sleep clinic in New Zealand called Sleep Well.

[1] NZISM MEDIA RELEASE - New Zealand Institute of Safety Management
[2] Niedhammer, I., David, S., Degioanni, S., Drummond, A., Philip, P., & 143 Occupational Physicians. (2009). Workplace bullying and sleep disturbances: findings from a large scale cross-sectional survey in the French working population. Sleep, 32(9), 1211-1219
[3] Hoshino, K., Pasqualini, J. C., D'Oliveira, É. P., Silva, C. P. D., Modesto, Â. E., & Silveira, R. S. M. (2009). Is sleep deprivation involved in domestic violence? Sleep Science, 2(1), 14-20
[4] E.S. Ford, T.J. Cunningham, W.H. Giles, J.B. CroftTrends in insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness among US adults from 2002 to 2012 Sleep Med, 16 (2015)

Michael Hempseed is an ODI specialist in suicide and its causes; bullying is one such cause.  If you'd like to learn more, call Kyran on 021 688 966 or Nicky on 021 133 1201 or Talk To Us.