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November/December 2013 Issue

Workplace Bullying in Social Services — Client Care at Risk
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 13 No. 6 P. 26

Bullying is not only a youth issue; it’s a workplace problem. And when it happens in social services, client care can be compromised.

Adults often view bullying primarily as a youth-oriented problem, but the same behavior can persist into adulthood and manifest in adult activities. Bullying can occur in any workplace, even social services, and is similar to the intimidating and disruptive behavior among children and teens. It may undermine safety in the workplace and negatively affect relationships with clients or, even worse, put them at risk.

Though it’s an area where social workers can play a critical role in facilitating solutions, it’s important to recognize that social services are not exempt from the dynamics and adverse effects of bullying.

Roots of Bullying
“In many ways, workplace bullying is no different from schoolyard bullying,” says Martha Deering, LADC-I, LRC, a senior consultant and trainer with The Wellness Corporation in Shrewsbury, MA, which offers services such as corporate wellness programs. “Research has shown that 81% of Americans were bullied in school. The same people who were bullies in school often graduate and become bullies in the workplace because they never experienced consequences for their behavior. Children who did not learn appropriate boundaries and limits are joining the workforce and creating problems. It may not always rise to the level of illegal harassment, but it’s still a major problem in the workplace.”

In fact, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, as many as one-third of workers may be victims of workplace bullying. And in approximately 20% of the cases, bullying does cross the line into harassment.

Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, a prominent ethicist and professor of social work at Rhode Island College, says bullying can manifest in several different ways. While most people think of vertical bullying occurring from the top down (as in the boss bullying his or her workers), Reamer says horizontal bullying (workers bullying each other) can be just as frequent. In terms of what causes the bullying, he says social workers are particularly well trained to identify those causes and seek out solutions.

The environment itself can often be a large part of the problem, as certain workplace settings are more likely to trigger bullying than others. “I’ve found that bullying can arise from workplaces where people feel like they don’t have a voice,” says Judith G. Hoffman, LICSW, CEAP, executive director of Coastline EAP in Warwick, RI. “There are some organizations where status hierarchies are very rigid. When employees begin to feel like they don’t have a way to voice their opinions, a negative and stressful climate is more likely to develop.”

“Organizations vary tremendously in terms of the climate they foster,” Reamer adds. “Certain characteristics of the workplace can certainly increase the likelihood of bullying more than others. This would include organizations with a great deal of stress or a bottom line, since it puts people on edge. Both within the human services and the business world, there are some settings that are particularly volatile and intense. That stress can increase the likelihood of bullying.”

Workplaces that are disorganized or where morale is low also are more likely to foster bullying. “Any setting where employees don’t feel well cared for can start to put people on edge and increase the likelihood of bullying,” Reamer says. “For instance, if there is no privacy available in the workplace because of constant surveillance, it can put employees on edge. Vertical bullying can start to occur, but so can horizontal bullying because employees may begin to feel suspicious or competitive with one another. Sadly, in some settings, there are even cliques that emerge and can lead to group bullying. It’s almost like a high school climate. You look in the lunchroom, and there are people sitting in cliques.”

“What often happens is that there is someone within the group who is very powerful and sets the tone by their disrespectful communication,” Hoffman notes. “No one wants to stand up to them because they don’t want the laser focused on them. That causes others to withdraw, and it shuts down a lot of the healthy communication that could have been used for the work task.”

Effects on Quality of Care
Although bullying may seem like a distant problem, social workers must be able to turn the lens on their own organizations—and perhaps even themselves—and determine whether bullying may be occurring. It’s naïve to believe that bullying can’t happen among social workers. “Social workers and human service agencies are not immune to bullying,” Reamer says. “We’d like to think that no social worker would ever be a bully because the profession’s very mission is to nurture and help. Our code of ethics is clear about our duty. But we are human beings, and it’s our ethical duty to focus the microscopes on ourselves as much as it is to focus it on others.”

“Just like any other human being, social workers can also have problems with communication or even problems that ultimately become bullying,” Hoffman adds. “We aren’t immune to mistakes, but hopefully our training makes it easier to recognize. We hope that coworkers would be more willing to provide feedback and supervisors would be more apt to address the problems earlier on.”

When a social worker is being bullied, it could be detrimental to his or her service to clients. “Like any other profession, if a social worker is dealing with negativity from colleagues, even to the point of bullying, he or she may avoid asking for peer or supervisor consultation on a difficult client matter to avoid ridicule or criticism,” Hoffman says. “That may potentially affect client care and reduce opportunities for growth for the social worker.”

Long hours, large caseloads, and the emotional toll of the job are just a few reasons why social workers often are already under tremendous stress. Add bullying to the mix and there’s no doubt that it can lead to negative health consequences. Those consequences may affect the social worker’s ability to work effectively with clients, Hoffman adds. “A social worker who is struggling with his or her own professional identity, confidence, or sense of community may be more vulnerable to depression and anxiety disorders which can impact care,” she says.

“Social workers should keep in mind that staffers’ bullying behaviors can have deleterious consequences for clients as well as colleagues,” Reamer says. “Bullying can harm professional morale and even exacerbate burnout. As a result, practitioners who are victims of bullying may become less invested in their work and consequently provide substandard care to their clients. Evidence suggests that burned-out employees can become so distracted by organizational chaos that they are more likely to make errors in judgment and are less careful when they make important decisions throughout the workday.”

And the bullying’s effects may extend even further within the organization itself, impacting more individuals and even more clients. While not always the case, bullying situations do have the potential to spiral out of control. “Bullying victims who become angry at their agency-based perpetrators may feel the need to retaliate in subtle or not-so-subtle ways,” Reamer says. “This sort of intraorganizational tension can have a direct, negative impact on the quality of services provided to clients.”

Professional Blind Spots
The trouble is, when it comes to looking close to home, it sometimes can be difficult to recognize problems. “Social worker impairment is something I don’t think we’ve done a great job of addressing, and I often wonder how many cases of impairment that result in official action from a licensing board could have been avoided with better interventions in the workplace,” says Jonathan M. Lukens, MSW, MBE, PhD, an assistant professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts. “Like other professions, such as law and medicine, we are not always good at self-policing. I think that, as always, there are complex issues facing people when a colleague is showing signs of impairment, including bullying. Depending on who is doing the bullying, there may be significant power differential between the person doing the bullying and the person who is being affected. Fear of losing a job or losing opportunities for promotion are just two examples of how an asymmetrical power relationship in regards to status in an agency can impact the willingness to report bullying.”

Lukens says there are a couple steps that agencies need to take to address bullying within their own organization. “Ultimately, bullying creates a working environment that inhibits the ability of an agency to provide the best possible services for clients,” he says. “Consequently, it is an issue that agency policy should address with clear guidelines for reporting and the protection of those who feel they have been bullied, and procedures for resolving conflict that guarantee due process for all of the parties involved. Increasingly, agencies are convening ethics review boards that are charged with reviewing challenging ethics cases and providing support for workers who are facing unique ethics challenges. Certainly, workplace intimidation falls within this category, as it is an issue of professional conduct that violates NASW standards in terms of our responsibilities to colleagues and also is an impediment to providing effective care to clients, yet again a clear breach of NASW standards regarding duty to clients and competent practice.”

Better Communication, Improved Efficiency
In many cases, correcting workplace bullying can benefit not only workplace communication but overall workplace efficiencies. It often behooves a supervisor to put an end to bullying so that employees are happier and more productive. However, that’s not true in every instance and, unfortunately, in circumstances where the bullying actually may be “effective,” it may be less likely to be stopped. “Statistics show that the harasser very infrequently receives any kind of disciplinary action,” Deering says. “The problem is that a lot of times, the bullying does produce results. A manager who is being tough on his employee but is getting results may be less likely to be disciplined. Upper management may blame the one who is bullied, saying they’re a complainer or that they’re exaggerating. That may only further torment the one being bullied. It may take a third party to help straighten things out.”

An issue of communication gone awry often can be the root of many bullying problems. Regardless of where the bullying takes place, a closer look at communication practices is a key to successfully end the bullying. How do employees interact with one another? How does management interact with employees? Is diversity in opinion encouraged or discouraged? It is these dynamics that will significantly impact whether workplace opinion differences will foster healthy discussion or become an issue of bullying. “When looking at differences in opinion and workplace communication, it’s so important to remember that there is a positive side to all of this,” Hoffman says. “Differences of opinion can be a wonderful thing; it’s where many new ideas are born.”

Hoffman says she’d like to see more organizations being proactive. Because bullying often arises from simple issues, early intervention would ensure they are addressed before getting out of control. “What may seem like harmless teasing can be painful for someone with a trauma history,” she says. “We all share some responsibility in communicating what’s comfortable for us and what isn’t. I’d like to see those discussions happen early on before behavior has the opportunity to become more demeaning and destructive. If it’s not something that individuals can address on their own, then it’s the manager’s responsibility. But either way, addressing it early can prevent major problems down the line. Workplaces need to encourage a healthy dialogue from the start.”

Social Work’s Role
Social workers’ understanding of issues such as domestic violence or workplace impairment and training prepares them to recognize and address workplace bullying. The stress that results from workplace bullying also can result in numerous health-related symptoms that social workers often are well equipped to understand.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 45% of bullying targets have stress-related health problems. “That includes debilitating anxiety and clinical depression, PTSD, and a number of physical symptoms like headaches, fatigue, weight changes, and even cardiac problems,” Deering says. “The stress and anxiety can even lead to substance abuse problems causing a further complication.”

On an individual level, social workers can offer support and counseling, using their crisis intervention skills to work with these victimized individuals, Reamer says. “A good social worker understands how to meaningfully help someone who is depressed, feeling anxiety, or even manifesting symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder—all of which can be a result of workplace bullying,” he says.

On an organizational level, social workers can serve as consultants, analyzing and assessing organizational structures, meeting with administrators, and conducting interviews. “We think systematically and are tuned into organizational dynamics, which can help us understand the ecology of the workplace,” Reamer says. “Social workers may be able to offer advice on changing a toxic workplace environment and fostering healthier communication and structure.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, PA, and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.