1/4 Of UK Employees Bullied At Work

Mon, 09 Nov 2020 by Liz Rosling

Last year we conducted a survey with the aim of helping UK SMEs become better workplaces for employees and employers alike. After surveying 2,000 UK based employees on their experiences at work to date, our findings revealed that:

  • 23% of the British workforce has been bullied at work
  • 25% have been made to feel left out in the workplace
  • 12% admitted to struggling to make friends in their place of work

The above three incidences constitute just a few examples of ways that bullying can occur in the workplace. For those of you who thought that bullying ended in the playground, think again. Sadly, 1 in 4 of us have experienced bullying or been made to feel left out in their place of work.

The term ‘bullying’ can be characterised in a number of different ways. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), define bullying as ’offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.
Whilst bullying isn’t classed as illegal under the Equality Act 2010, harassment is. The problem is that there are often a number of overlaps between harassment and bullying – where harassment is more direct, bullying is often less obvious, more subtle and psychological.
The Acas helpline receives over 20,000 calls annually. These calls reveal that bullying manifests in a wide variety of ways, having serious impacts on individual wellbeing, business performance and the UK economy as a whole.

Despite not being recognised under the Equality Act, under the Health & Safety At Work Act 1974 all employers have a legal duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees – which includes protection from bullying at work.

Research Findings

According to our findings, the proportion of workers who have experienced workplace bullying is fairly consistent across age groups and gender. When it came to feeling left out in the workplace, the statistics varied considerably.

18 – 24 year olds had the highest proportion of respondents admitting to feeling left out in their workplace, with a shocking  of this age group not feeling a part of their team. This was closely followed by 25 – 34 years olds, of which 31% agreed that they feel left out at work. As the age groups progress, this figure continues to drop:

  • 35 – 44 year olds – 25%
  • 45 – 54 year olds – 21%
  • Over 55 year olds – 16.6%

Not only varying by age group, the results differed regionally too. While just 15% of the workforce in Northern Ireland feel that they’ve experienced bullying, almost a third of employees in the South West feel that they have.

Sadly, 17% of the workforce in Scotland have struggled to make friends at work, compared to just 6% in the South West. Whereas a huge 29.5% of London workers have been made to feel left out at work, falling to 20.6% in the East of England.

Table Of Regional Figures

Region % who feel they’ve been bullied % who feel they’ve been made to feel left out % who have struggled to make friends
South East 20.5% 26.6% 14.0%
South West 29.5% 20.8% 6.4%
West Midlands 18.6% 23.4% 9.00%
North West 24.5% 22.3% 13.1%
North East 22.2% 26.7% 12.2%
Yorkshire 24.0% 25.7% 13.8%
East Midlands 22.1% 27.5% 10.7%
East England 19.4% 20.6% 10.3%
Scotland 22.5% 29.0% 17.2%
Northern Ireland 15.6% 28.1% 9.4%
Wales 23.9% 26.1% 9.8%
London 27.1% 29.5% 11.6%

Under the Equality Act 2010, harassment is unlawful and employers are liable for any harassment suffered by their employees. Examples of this unwarranted behaviour listed on Gov.uk include:

  • Unfair treatment
  • Picking on or regularly undermining someone
  • Denying training or promotion opportunities
  • Spreading malicious rumours

And this can occur:

  • face-to-face
  • by letter
  • by email
  • by phone

In order to help both people setting up a business and existing employers with advice on setting up anti-bullying and harassment policies for their workplaces, Acas had produced a valuable booklet on dealing with and preventing bullying.

What Can Employers Do To Combat Workplace Bullying?

mandy watson quote

Mandy Watson, Founder and Director of Ambitions Personnel, one of the East Midlands’ largest recruitment agencies, and Anthea Morris, co-founder of Better2Know, a global award-winning business providing STI testing across the world, give their valuable advice on the steps employers can take to safeguard employees and ensure their workplaces are free from bullying and harassment.

Mandy Watson: ”ACAS defines bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”.

“However, in practice, it’s very difficult for employers to define. Human nature means people have different boundaries, and what is ‘banter’ to one person, could prove highly offensive to someone else. The reality is that employers could be faced with having to negotiate a very grey and difficult area, as current legislation surrounding workplace bullying provides very little clarity or protection for workers with less than two years’ service. That is, except in cases where the bullying is related to a protected characteristic and meets the definition of harassment under the Equality Act 2010. This can potentially leave some employers at sea when faced with such matters.

“Shockingly, the TUC reports that nearly a third of people have experienced bullying at work with the vast majority citing their manager as being the bully.

“What is clear is that any level of workplace bullying can have devastating effects, not least on someone’s mental health, but in the wider picture can also create a ‘toxic’ environment – resulting in staff disengaging, higher levels of absence and staff turnover, negative culture and reduced productivity.

“Employers of any size have a duty of care towards their staff, and may want to consider implementing a bullying and harassment policy which sets out what they deem to constitute bullying and harassment, the ways it can manifest, both verbal and non-verbal, in and outside of the workplace, the consequences of anyone found in breach of the policy and also steps for an employee to take if they feel they are being bullied. Whilst not a legal obligation to have such a policy, it is deemed best practice.

“Often, a barrier for employees coming forward could be fears of negative consequences on their job or career prospects going forward, so employers should set out what steps will be taken should any bullying be reported – and commit to carrying out a fair, reasonable and proportionate investigation, protecting the employee where appropriate.

“That said, employers responsibilities towards staff will always stretch beyond a piece of paper – fostering a culture of mutual trust and communication is key. It’s important that employees feel able to come forward and report any issues, and have a line of communication with a neutral person (such as HR or senior management) as an alternative to their line manager.

“Employees who feel they are being bullied may wish to directly address the behaviour with the bully informally in the first instance – tell them you find the behaviour unacceptable and want them to stop. If that doesn’t work or is not an option, speak to someone you trust as soon as possible, you’ll ideally be able to provide specific details of what has occurred and when, giving details of any witnesses or written evidence where relevant. This will help the employer be able to conduct a full and meaningful investigation.”

Anthea Morris: “A lot of what follows is good business practice, that can help prevent many issues including performance management, non-performing teams as well as bullying.

One of the many good things about being a small business is that it is much easier to get the whole company together. Whether this is team meetings or team nights out, these are good ways for the staff to get to know each other. If the same people are always missing from events, then try to find out why.

There may be multitude of reasons, but helping them to feel involved by changing the type or time of event can be all that is needed. We had a shy member of staff who never came to team event. She said she always went to see her parents on a Friday night after work and didn’t want to miss it and upset them. Changing the time to a Thursday night meant she was able to come along.

Simple things can make a big difference: don’t just go to the pub, try an activity evening such as rock climbing or bell rining in your local church. However if someone is missing as they don’t want to go out with a specific person or group of people (not all bullying is 1 on 1) then talk to them and work out a way to improve this situation and improve the working relationship.

Look at individual performance metrics. If there are changes, often gradual, then try to have some 1-2-1 time to find out if that staff member is ok. There may be non-work related things, there may be non-bullying work related issues, but downward trends are not good for the business, staff moral or the individual.

Don’t just accept performance changes or jump straight to performance management. Recruiting and induction is long and expensive. If someone has performed well in the past it is up to you as a manager and leader to help them to achieve that again.


Talk about bullying and harrasment in team meetings, and talk about different things that could be perceived as bullying and make other colleagues unhappy. Discuss different things that you could do in these situations. Help your team see different support mechanisms both inside and outside the organisation.

This is a good idea whether or not your think there is bullying in the workplace. It may also help your team in other areas of their lives. Some payroll and Professional Indemnity Providers will have an employee advice helpline – have you asked yours if they do? This can also help with employees stress manaement and mental health concerns.

If you do have concenrs about bullying, then sit down with both parties (individually at first) and find out what is going on and try to resolve it informally. If there are no signs of improvement within a week then you do need to start a more formall process to keep on top of the legislation. It can be complex and changing, and will vary depending on the situation.

Research Methodology – Data Accuracy is Everything

We set about understanding the workplace experiences of the 32.2 million people employed in the UK. We were interested in deciphering both business finance statistics and bullying in the workplace statistics in the UK. In order to do so, we worked with an accredited market research company to poll a large, diverse sample of the British workforce.

We worked with 3GEM Research predominantly because the team at 3GEM is made up of MRS and ESOMAR accredited employees.

ESOMAR sets the globally recognised standards for information collection in a market research capacity. Its guidelines ensure (amongst other things):

  • The data of participants is protected
  • Participants are aware of how their data is used
  • MRS is a similar body that advocates:
  • Fair and unbiased questioning

All of the above ensure we have startup statistics data obtained through a research company compliant with data protection regulation and best practice. 2,000 employed participants took part in our survey. The surveyed participants fell into five age groups:

  • 18 to 24
  • 25 to 34
  • 35 to 44
  • 45 to 54
  • 55+

They were from 12 first level regions within the UK:

  • London
  • South East
  • South West
  • West Midlands
  • North West
  • North East
  • Yorkshire
  • East Midlands
  • East England
  • Scotland
  • Northern Ireland
  • Wales

All participants were employed (as opposed to self employed, retired or unemployed) and of a relatively even split between men and women. Once we were confident we had the right panel and research provider, we set about ensuring we asked clear, concise questions in order to fully comprehend the extent and impact of bullying in the workplace.

Raw Data

The data obtained from the survey is available on request. Please email liz.rosling@smeloans.co.uk if you would like a copy.

About Liz Rosling

Liz is a business finance specialist, responsible for publishing relevant industry insight for SME Loans. Also an author at StartUp Mindset, Liz uses her years of experience in the financial services sector, to equip small business owners with the guidance and expertise they need to realise their full potential. Stay up to date with Liz through LinkedIn and Twitter. You can drop her an email at liz.rosling@dojono.com.

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