Bully lawyerBullying, defined as the “repeated, systematic, and intentional negative behavior of one or more individuals directed at another individual”, causes stress and problems at work.  Bullying really hurts people and their organizations.  Bullies cause psychosomatic and physiologic complaints and psychological problems for their victims.  According to some definitions, bullying requires a power differential.  Most victims of bullying, because they occupy the inferior position, struggle to defend themselves.  They struggle to cope.  According to recent research, certain coping strategies can hurt them, too.

A number of prior studies have considered bullying and health problems and coping strategies and health problems.  But, very few studies have investigated the relationships between being bullied, health complaints, and the role of coping strategies.  The study featured here did.  The researchers investigated the relationships between being bullied and health complaints and considered the moderating role of coping strategies.

Toxic workplace behaviors, i.e. bullying, can exist in legal organizations – firms, legal departments, and even courts.  The research study featured in this post shows that some coping strategies commonly used by victims do not preserve health and do not preserve the work environment.  Some actually make things worse.  The take-away part of this post suggests that one of the coping strategies at issue here – compensation, i.e. alcohol – has important implications for lawyers, their work, their careers, and, for some, their lives.

The main findings in this study [which did not involves lawyers and their workplaces] show that heavy workloads, low job satisfaction, and poor relationships with management play an important role in workplace bullying.  Legal management and the leadership team must deal with these issues, too.  Perhaps the new insights provided in the research summarized here can motivate legal managers and legal leaders to make their legal workplaces better places to work so that the members can have a better workplace experience and in turn provide better service to their clients, their firms, courts, and the community.

Forms of Bullying Behaviors

The researchers measured bullying by using a scale developed as a result of international research into employees’ personal experiences with bullying at work.  Eight forms of bullying have been identified:

        • Being excluded by colleagues
        • Making work uncomfortable or impossible
        • Suffering ridicule
        • Being the subject of gossip
        • Experiencing verbal or nonverbal threats
        • Being physically abused
        • Being sexually intimidated
        • Being discriminated against

Negative Effects of Bullying – Harm to People and Organizations

Negative effects of bullying at workBullying constitutes “an extreme for of social stress”, according to some studies.  Victims can experience and report psychosomatic and physiological complaints and psychological problems, like anxiety and depressive symptoms, after just a couple of days.  Depression symptoms include a sense of worthlessness and loss of interest.  Other research has linked long term bullying, i.e. at least six months duration.  Examples of the longer term effects of bullying include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and even suicide attempts.  More than 20 health complaints have been associated with bullying.  Examples include headaches, palpitations, and back pain.  Bullying impacts general well-being.  Issues related to anger and sociability come to the surface.

Like the research about individuals, others studies have documented that bullying has a detrimental effect on the workplace.  Victims have less motivation to work.  They have less job satisfaction. Also, they record greater numbers of absences.  The effects of bullying snowball into decreased productivity, worker turnover, and customer dissatisfaction.  Bullying victims, as shown by one study, have a 50% higher absenteeism rate than employees who have not been bullied.  Past research has shown an association between bullying and excessive workload and amount of work, lack of autonomy, and poor relationships of workers with managers.

Two Categories of Coping Strategies and Their Impact on Health

Research has shown that individual differences determine whether the stressors associated with bullying will lead to problems for workers and eventually their organizations.  Our cognitive judgments, i.e. subjective perceptions of stressors at work, impact the behaviors that we use to cope.  This research considered two categories of coping strategies:  problem-oriented, or active coping (analyze the situation, and select and implement a solution, geared to solve the problem, includes seeking social support, i.e. seeking information or asking someone for help); emotion-oriented, or passive coping (aim to readjust perception of the problem, make positive comparisons, put problem into perspective, can include avoidance, which may include alcohol or substance abuse, or distancing).  These strategies have different impacts on our health.

Research has clearly shown that meeting bullying head-on has the positive impact on our health.  Active coping styles stimulate health.  According to the authors, “active coping has consistently been found to be negatively related to depressive symptoms and health complaints. . . . “  But, when it comes to dealing with bullies and bullying, research has shown that passive strategies, e.g. compensation or denial, hurt us.  Strategies which do not change the situation or remove the stressor, e.g. denial or avoidance, negatively impact health.  “Stress-reducing compensatory behavior such as the excessive use of alcohol or drugs also impacts health as those behaviors increase risk of heart disease, cancer, and psychoses.”

Research Issues – Health Effects, Strategy “Choices, and How to Influence and Uncontrollable Situation?

Bulling in workplace - female People use active coping strategies when they believe that they can change a stressful situation.  Passive strategies get deployed by those who believe that “nothing can be done to change the external threat or when they lose control over the situation.”  According to the authors, “power differentials are part and parcel to bullying”.   Victims hold the inferior position in the power structure.  Victims likely perceive their circumstances as “uncontrollable” situations.  As a result, the argument continues, they believe that they can exert little influence.

So far, according to the authors, the research results have been mixed regarding victims’ preference for use of passive vs. active coping strategies.  The authors therefore set out to study and reckon the coping strategies of bullying victims and to investigate a new area:  health problems associated with coping strategies.

The Research Study’s Participants, Measures, and Procedure

Individuals who worked at least 8 hours per week in a wide range of Dutch organizations who had colleagues and a manager completed the questionnaires for the study.   The questionnaires measured the employees’ (n = 356) personal experiences with bullying using the eight forms of bullying identified earlier.

The coping strategies studied included compensation (e.g. drinking alcohol when having problems at work), denial (e.g. pretend nothing is wrong when having problems at work), adopting an active positive attitude (e.g. when having stress at work, remind self about good aspects of work), and seeking social support (e.g. ask people with same problems what they did to fix the problem).   The investigators surveyed the 12 month period before completion of the questionnaire and measured how the participants reacted to problems and stress at work.  To assess the effects of coping styles, the researchers measured health complaints, depression, and well-being.

Bullying victims suffer on many fronts.  They experience physical and psychological harms.  The study used a list of 21 health complaints to measure the participants’ health consequences of their bullying experiences.  The complaints, e.g. headaches, palpitations, and back pain, refer to chronic physical discomfort.  The researchers also measured days off from work in the six months before the questionnaire.  A Dutch translation of the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), which measures 21 symptoms of depression, helped the investigators tap into the bullying victims’ feelings.  The BDI measures symptoms like feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and loss of interest and levels of severity with those symptoms.  A final area of bullying harms concerns “well-being”.   Participant responses to a general health questionnaire which measures somatic symptoms, such as anger and sociability, provided the investigators data about this variable.

Previous research findings have shown the relevance of several workplace characteristics.  The researchers employed a separate questionnaire which measured these aspects, i.e. excessive workload (e.g. have to work quickly), lack of autonomy (e.g. no choice in method to do work), and poor relationships with managers (e.g. “Can you rely on your manager?”).  These features of the workplace have been shown to associate with workplace bullying.

Results and Discussion

Without detailing the analyses performed nor the acknowledged limitations of the study, the results provide new insights and show that we have new cause for greater concern about workplace characteristics and worker health and well-being.  Bullying prevalence rates have increased.  In light of the results of this research, that trend suggests that more health complaints, more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, and higher absenteeism occur in the workplace.  also, certain coping strategies actually lead to more health-related problems.

About one-half of the Dutch workers had not been bullied.  The victims (39%, at least once per month; 18%, at least once a week) who experienced bullying showed no gender differences.  The most frequently reported bullying acts occurring at least once per month were:  unnecessary criticism, wrongful judgment, unpleasant job assignment, and gossip.  The data showed that “the more participants were excluded, ridiculed, unnecessarily criticized, wrongfully judged, and required to do unpleasant work, the great their health complaints and depressive symptoms and the poorer their well-being.” The data supported this research hypothesis:  “Employees who are victims of bullying experience more health complaints, more depressive symptoms, and poorer well-being, and are absent more frequently, than employees who have not been bullied.”

The authors stated “A significant difference between the three groups was also found for compensation as a coping strategy.”  Those who experienced bullying at least once a week used compensation more often than those who had not been bullied or who had been bullied at least once a month.  The data showed no differences between the groups for the three other coping strategies (denial, adopting an active positive attitude, and seeking social support) investigated in the study.

The final part of the study looked at the new area:  coping strategies and health.  The authors found here that “Greater workload, less autonomy, less job satisfaction, and poorer relationships with managers was associated with more health complaints, more depressive symptoms, and poorer well-being.”  Gender mattered here.  The investigators found that “women were found to report more health complaints and depressive symptoms, and experience poorer well-being, than men.”  Health complaints decreased with increasing age.  “Among those with high scores on compensation, a positive relationship between being bullied and health complaints was found.”  Bullying victims used compensation as a coping strategy more frequently.

The results showed a stronger relationship between being bullied and health-related problems for bullying victims who frequently used compensation or denial.  Surprisingly, the results also showed that bullying victims who adopted an active positive attitude coping strategy actually had more health-related problems.

The summary points for this research study include:

  • Being bullied negatively impacts mental and physical health and well-being
  • Bullying victims have greater absenteeism
  • Bullying victims more frequently use compensation and denial as coping strategies
  • Bullying victims “who frequently use compensation or denial or who frequently attempt to adopt an active positive attitude experienced  more health complaints, reported more depressive symptoms, had poorer well-being, and were absent from work more than others”
  • Bullying, health complaints, depressive symptoms, and poorer well-being more likely to occur with high workloads, low autonomy, low job satisfaction, and poor relationships with manager
  • The coping strategies of compensation and denial fail to preserve the health of bullying victims and do not decrease absenteeism
  • Management and organizations as a whole have an important role to play in fostering growth, and tackling the bullying at work problem – address workplace issues associated with bullying:  heavy workload, little autonomy, poor relationships with managers, and low job satisfaction

Take-Aways – Bullying and the Life and Health of Lawyers and Law Firms. . . . Serious Business

Nestled within our law firms, corporate legal departments, courts, and generally just about any organization in which lawyers do their work, bullies, the “bad apples” who go against cultural and societal standards, and the recipe of factors – heavy workload, little autonomy, power differentials, and poor relationships with superiors – for workplace bullying exist.  The pantry shows that it is fully stocked.  A couple of years ago, the ABA posted “Address Bullying Behavior Before Your Firm Gets a Black Eye” see here.  Bullying in our profession is serious business.

The best firms, departments, and other legal organizations will, according to the ABA article’s author, have made known their intolerance for bullying.  The leadership will have warned about and condemned this behavior explicitly and in advance.  The leadership will act decisively to prevent it.  When it occurs, the leaders shall spring into action to halt such offensive and unacceptable behavior.  The research results featured in this post confirm that leadership and managers have much that they can do here.  They must.  Bullying in legal organizations is serious business.

No offender can be considered “too important” when it comes to such matters as bullying, victim coping, and resulting harms to health and well-being.  The author of the ABA article, Tom Grella, after outlining a suggested protocol on how to deal with legal workplace bullies, ends his nice piece with a challenge to firms to resolve this type of offensive conduct.  He speaks in language that lawyers understand.  Grella references liability exposure, costs, and expense.  He closes by stating “Firm management willing to implement a specific intervention plan will likely avoid the negative consequences that such conduct has on firm morale and culture.”

Bullying also poses serious concerns for lawyers who are bullying victims.  The reason suggested here relates to the ineffective coping strategy – compensation.  For lawyers, this implicates alcohol abuse.

Lawyers have a huge problem with alcohol abuse and alcoholism.  A recent article, “A Lawyer’s Fractured Fairy Tale” see here, featured by the Missouri Lawyers Assistance Program (MOLAP), discusses the effects on family and work and the “exorbitant toll on lawyers, the legal system, and consumers of legal services” related to alcohol abuse and alcoholism.  The Dutch worker research study suggests that bullied lawyers will use compensation as a coping strategy.  This means that when they have problems related to being bullied, they will drink.

Although they have a J.D., many lawyers, especially those in early career positions and working in larger firms, departments, or agencies, will themselves occupy inferior power positions.  Add the avoiding coping strategy of compensation with the crushing workloads, autonomy issues, and poor relationship issues with superiors, and the prospects for serious and substantial physical, psychological, and well-being harms become very real.  These circumstances present some very scary possibilities.  For bullied lawyers who drink this can run a wide gamut from drunk driving vehicle accidents to homicide or suicide, malpractice claims, and attorney discipline.  Lawyers and their organizations can avoid and must eliminate the potential for these harms.  How?

When it comes to bullying in the legal workplace, the research results noted here offer managers and leaders solid reasons to act decisively.  Train staff and members about and put protocols in place to prevent bullying.  Enforce them.  Halt bullying if it occurs.  Adopt and enforce a “no person is too important” policy when it comes to dealing with and eliminating bullies and bullying in the legal workplace.  No shortcuts or substitutions allowed.  Right?

Article Source:  Dehue, F., Bolman, C., Völlink, T., & Pouwelse, M. (2012). Coping with bullying at work and health related problems. International Journal of Stress Management, DOI: 10.1037/a0028969

Image Credits:  Bully lawyer see here / Negative effects at work see here / Power differential see here / Rapid growth see here / About bamboo see here.

See Missouri Lawyers Assistance Program (MOLAP) see here: “a professional, confidential counseling program for members of The Missouri Bar, their families, and law students. Through a variety of free services, MOLAP helps individuals overcome personal problems such as depression, substance abuse, stress, and burnout.”

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.
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One Response to Bullying at Work [Legal Organizations], Coping Strategies, and Health Problems

  1. Thank you for sharing such powerful article, very well detailed and realistic. Is sad to see this behaviors, especially among managers and people who are suppose to know better.