Double-whammy effect for targets and observers of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying affects those who witness bullying as well as those who are bullied but those who are both observers and targets of bullying suffer the most, according to a new study.

Dr Helena Cooper-Thomas, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Auckland, investigated whether greater exposure to bullying was associated with a poorer work environment in terms of leadership and perceived cohesion, and poorer individual wellbeing and work attitudes including strain and intentions to leave. Four groups were compared: non-bullied, observers, targets and those who were both observers and targets of bullying.

“In terms of effects we found there was a hierarchy, ranging from those who didn’t experience or witness bullying who were the least affected to those who both witnessed and were the targets of bullying, who were most negatively affected,” Dr Cooper-Thomas said.

Of the 1,733 participants, from 36 organisations across the health, education, hospitality and travel sectors, the non-bullied reported the most positive perceptions of the work environment, followed by those who observed bullying, then those who were targets of bullying. People who were both the targets of, and witnesses to, bullying reporting the least positive perceptions of the work environment.

“The greater exposure a person had to bullying both directly and indirectly the more negative their perception of the work environment was. Greater exposure to bullying was also associated with lower wellbeing, and poorer work attitudes,” she said.

Dr Cooper-Thomas will present her research at the 9th Industrial and Organisational Psychology Conference (IOP) hosted by the Australian Psychological Society College of Organisational Psychologists, which starts in Brisbane tomorrow.

“There hasn’t been much research which looks at the impact of bullying on witnesses. Yet nearly 10 per cent of respondents said they had witnessed bullying,” she said.

“Often people tend to think of bullying as being just between individuals – a bully and a target – but our research shows that people who observe bullying are also affected and those who both observe bullying and are targets of bullies are the worst affected and receive a double whammy effect.

“When you think of the ripple effect across a workforce from all those who are touched by bullying, the impact is significant,” she said.
Leadership style and organisational climate also had an effect on whether bullying occurred.

“Those who experienced bullying tended to come from organisations where there was less constructive leadership and a more relaxed laissez-faire management style,” Dr Cooper-Thomas said.

“Leadership also plays an important role in bullying culture. Constructive leadership negates bullying, which indicates a greater emphasis needs to put on leadership training to ensure leaders can promote a positive work climate and they have strong processes for the oversight of their workforce,” she said.


For more information, or to arrange an interview,
please contact Judith Heywood on 03 8662 3301
or Karen Coghlan on 0435 896 444

What constitutes bullying?

Workplace bullying is the experience of aggressive and negative behaviours towards one or more employees that results in a hostile work environment. To be classified as bullying, such negative acts must be regular (usually at least weekly) and persistent (continuing for a 6 month period or longer).

The consequences of bullying are severe for individuals and organisations, and include poorer physical and mental health including suicidal ideation, absenteeism and presenteeism, and early retirement.

About IOP: The ninth biennial Industrial and Organisational Psychology Conference, hosted by the Australian Psychological Society College of Organisational Psychologists, will be held in Brisbane from 23 to 26 June. It will explore current workplace issues such as leadership, stigma, workplace bullying, work/life balance, safety and mental health in the workplace. For a full program, go to