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A Minute With: Professor Dorothy Espelage on workplace bullying

by Sharita Forrest / Nov 18, 2013

NOVEMBER 11, 2013, ILLINOIS NEWS BUREAU, CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Recently, Miami Dolphins player Jonathan Martin left the team in response to alleged maltreatment by teammate Richie Incognito and the event has sparked controversy about bullying in professional sports. Educational psychologist Dorothy Espelage recently led a study that examined factors predictive of workplace bullying. Espelage discussed her work in an interview with New Bureau editor Sharita Forrest. Espelage is the Edward William Gutgsell and Jane Marr Gutgsell Endowed Professor of child development in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois.

One of the controversies surrounding the Martin-Incognito dispute involves definitions of bullying, with some people indicating that the term is being overused in general or at least is misused in this particular context. When is it appropriate to call behavior bullying?

Experts generally define bullying as unwanted intentional aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power. And it can range from mild to severe. Although this type of aggression is most often associated with children or adolescents, it also affects adults, and is referred to as workplace bullying when it is connected with an adult’s place of employment.

And whether bullying is in the classroom or the workplace it may involve similar behaviors, such as humiliation, social exclusion, verbal abuse or spreading rumors, and can be perpetrated through digital media. It also can involve physical victimization.

In the case of a manager bullying a subordinate, the manager may try to undermine the employee’s performance by imposing impossible deadlines or workloads.

Based upon what’s been reported in the news about the Miami Dolphins’ players, calling the behavior ‘bullying” is inappropriate. If the reports are true, there appears to have been a pattern of harassment that involved racial discrimination and other possible illegal or criminal conduct, such as threatening a person’s life.
Your research on youth aggression has shown that bullying involvement may be associated with some pretty serious health consequences that may even carry over into adulthood. Do adult victims of workplace bullying fare better?

Evidence suggests that experiencing bullying has similar effects on adults as on youth, with increased risks of depression, anxiety and psychosomatic problems that range from mild – such as headaches – to severe, such as respiratory problems and pain. Likewise, bullied adults and kids may experience problems with diminished self-esteem and self-confidence and become socially isolated.

Assertiveness seems to be a protective factor as is greater cohesiveness with co-workers. However, social anxiety and self-doubt may place adult victims at greater risk of health problems.

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