On the playground, she’s mean. She laughs at our lisp and calls our pigtails ugly. She gets a bunch of her friends to stand in our way when we try to climb the jungle gym.

Flash forward 20 years and, finally, we can wear whatever we want and walk confidently down the street. That is, until 9 a.m., when we skulk past her corner office and pray she doesn’t scream at us for making a mistake on our latest project. The bully is back.

Across the U.S., workplace bullying is on the rise. The trend has some obvious negative consequences in the form of stressed and unhappy employees. But the ramifications of workplace bullying go beyond tearful staff members hiding out in bathroom stalls. Hostile workplaces often lead to less productive employees and therefore less successful companies. It might seem too simple, but perhaps the most effective way to increase job performance is to make sure everyone gets along.

What’s the Deal?

The term “workplace bullying” encompasses a pretty wide range of situations, but in general, it refers to repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more people that can include verbal abuse, offensive nonverbal behaviors, or interfering with someone’s ability to get work done. Over the last few decades, the number of people who’ve admitted to being the target of workplace bullying has increased drastically. In 2011, half of employees in one survey said they were treated rudely at least once a week, an increase of 25 percent from 1998. (Recent research also suggests that physically unattractive people are more likely to be bullied at the office.) Many people say the experience of being bullied has caused them to develop health issues such as anxiety and depression. Some have even left their jobs.

While it’s becoming increasingly obvious workplace bullying is a problem, it’s not entirely clear why bullying is on the rise. Some researchers say the recent economic downturn has put undue stress on bosses, causing them to lash out at employees. Many workplace bullies also score high on tests of narcissism and self-orientation. But those who are rude in the workplace aren’t necessarily self-absorbed tyrants. Some of us are so overwhelmed by our work responsibilities that we don’t even realize when we’re being rude to others, says Dr. Christine Porath, a Georgetown University professor who studies workplace incivility.

In spite of their negative qualities, workplace bullies often get away with abuse, receiving positive evaluations from their supervisors and moving up in the office food chain. As of now, there’s no legal way to stop them — federal law doesn’t prohibit workplace bullying. But since 2003, individual states have been lobbying the government to pass the “Healthy Workplace Bill,” legislation that would officially label and work to prevent workplace bullying.

Why It Matters

Aside from pushing for federal legislation, Porath says it’s not easy to convince already-overworked business leaders to pay attention to the issue of workplace bullying. The key, she says, is showing them how incivility takes a toll on productivity by talking in terms of dollars and cents.

There are in fact statistics suggesting incivility at the office hurts a company’s bottom line. As the incidence of workplace bullying increases, rates of employee engagement are plummeting. According to one report, less than a third of American employees say they’re engaged at work. And a survey conducted by neuro drinks found that only nine percent of people say they’re happy at the office.

It’s hard to say for sure that a hostile office directly causes people to be less enthusiastic about their work (the relationship might go the other way), but research suggests that, in general, an uncomfortable workplace makes people less engaged, less productive, and ultimately less likely to stay at their job Novice nurse productivity following workplace bullying. Berry, P.A., Gillespie, G.L., Gates, D., et al. College of Nursing, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, USA. Journal of Nursing Scholarship 2012 Mar;44(1):80-7.. It also makes them more likely to treat their coworkers poorly: Those who stay at their workplace after being bullied often end up becoming bullies in turn, says Greatist Expert and psychologist Dr. Michael Mantell.

It doesn’t end there. Employees who feel undermined at work are more likely to be stressed and to miss work for health reasons. And getting the death glare from a coworker won’t stimulate innovation: Employees are significantly less creative when they feel disrespected. Hostility is even a problem for those who aren’t directly affected: One study found that just watching someone get bullied at work is linked to depressive symptomsThe impact of bystanding to workplace bullying on symptoms of depression among women and men in industry in Sweden: an empirical and theoretical longitudinal study. Emdad, R., Alipour, A., Hagberg, J., et al. Karolinska Institute, Institute of Environmental Medicine, Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Unit of Intervention and Implementation Research, Stockholm, Sweden. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health 2013 Aug;86(6):709-16..

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that those who experience or witness bullying might not have anywhere to seek support. Compared to older generations, fewer Gen Y-ers (people between the ages of 18 and 34) are making close friends at work. That’s a big problem, given that research suggests support from coworkers can buffer the effects of work stress and boost job performanceBuffering effect of social support in the workplace on job strain and depressive symptoms. Komatsu, Y., Kai, Y., Nagamatsu, T., et al. School of Nursing, Faculty of Medicine, Toho University, Tokyo, Japan. Journal of Occupational Health 2010;52(3):140-8.Social support in the workplace: nurse leader implications. Shirey, M.R. Shirey and Associates, Evansville, IN, USA. Nursing economics 2004 Nov-Dec;22(6):313-9, 291.Job control and coworker support improve employee job performance. Nagami, M., Tsutsumi, A., Tsuchiya, M., et al. Department of Social and Environmental Medicine, Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine, Suita, Osaka, Japan. Industrial Health 2010;48(6):845-51.. Employees who say they have close friends at work are also more likely to be engaged at work and to stick with their current job.

The Takeaway

The good news is that recent research on workplace bullying has paved the way for efforts to prevent it. Mantell helps train managers in workplace harassment prevention, teaching leaders how to investigate the situation when someone reports workplace bullying and discipline the alleged bullies.

Ultimately, when it comes to creating a healthier workplace, it’s important to give employees resources before bullying actually occurs — whether that’s establishing a social support network or just learning how to label workplace incivility. When someone does feel bullied at work, it’s important to stay calm and turn to a trustworthy coworker or superior. Moreover, the target of bullying should continue to focus on producing her or his best work. “You can’t change the bully,” Mantell says, “but you can prevent yourself from being a victim.”

This article originally posted August 2013. Updated October 2013.

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Photo by Marissa Angell