The workplace is not a playground

The way the term ‘bullying’ has spread from schools to workplaces exposes today’s low view of workers.

Ken McLaughlin

Topics Politics

The problem of bullying has risen up the British political agenda in recent years. In 2003, UK government ministers announced a £470million ‘behaviour and attendance’ programme, which aimed to combat childhood bullying by sending specialist consultants to schools. Schools are now obliged to have ‘anti-bullying’ strategies.

Such initiatives were partly influenced by campaign groups and prominent individuals who have declared war on bullying. For example, Esther Rantzen, TV presenter and founder of children’s charity ChildLine, has claimed that childhood bullying is a ‘national crisis’ (1), and Cherie Booth, wife of the former UK prime minister Tony Blair, informs us that bullying has permeated British culture (2). Mental health charities argue that childhood bullying partly explains the rise in childhood mental health problems, which, they claim, can continue into adult life.

Of course no one wants to see children being badly bullied, and adults have a duty to intervene if things get out of hand. However, closer inspection finds that definitions of bullying have expanded exponentially in recent years, to include such things as ‘being mean to someone’, ‘teasing or calling names’, ‘having rumours spread about you’ and ‘being ignored and left out’. With such a wide-ranging definition, it should be no surprise that ‘bullying’ was the most common reason given for children phoning ChildLine (3).

Several perceptive commentators have noted how this expansion of the concept of childhood bullying has led to a situation where children are increasingly seen as victims or perpetrators of bullying behaviour. And as a result, today’s children are less likely than previous generations to be allowed to enjoy unsupervised play. This adult colonisation of children’s space may prevent serious incidents from occurring, but it also prevents children from learning how to negotiate less serious conflict in their own terms, which are skills they will need as they go through life (4).

Yet perhaps the most worrying thing about today’s bullying obsession is how ‘bullying’, a term once used almost exclusively to refer to certain kinds of behaviour in the school playground, is now permeating the adult world, too. ‘Workplace bullying’ is now seen as a major threat to the health of Britain’s workforce. Whether it is peer bullying or bullying by management towards staff, there is a growing consensus that there’s a significant problem in the workplace. The Trades Union Council declared 7 November 2007 as ‘National Ban Bullying at Work Day’ (5). Such is the apparent scale of the problem that some argue – without a hint of embarrassment – that workplace bullying is ‘the second greatest social evil after child abuse’(6). Nashra Mansuri of the British Association of Social Workers equates adult bullying with child abuse, which explicitly treats all of us as overgrown schoolchildren (7).

Anti-bullying poster

This was brought home to me recently when, sitting in my staff common room, I noticed two union posters on the noticeboard. The first informed me that I was in a place were there was ‘No Entry For Bullies’; the other that ‘Bullies Are a Workplace Hazard’. No doubt this was meant to reassure me that I could enjoy my break in peace without it being ruined by the workplace bully; in fact, the posters left me dismayed that my union seemed to view me as child in a playground rather than an adult in the workplace.

Some of the examples of ‘bullying’ behaviour in the workplace, put forward by unions and other campaigners who want to ‘stamp it out’, are just juvenile stuff. For example, workplace bullying can include ‘spreading malicious rumours, gossip and falsehood… isolating and separating a person from colleagues’. Other examples, such as ‘overburdening someone with work… or subjecting someone to verbal or written warnings for trivial or fabricated reasons’, would, in a previous age, have been seen as instances of economic exploitation or oppressive management. Or perhaps simply as part of the pressures of everyday work.

There are many dynamics behind this infantilisation of adulthood, but the changing role of trade unions has been a key influence. Gone are the days when unions emphasised the collective strength of their members. With the demise of the working class as a political force, the unions have had to find new ways of engaging with their members and negotiating on their behalf. Unfortunately, the new approach emphasises the individual weakness of the membership, and as a result negotiations tend to take a therapeutic approach, with the worker treated as something akin to a patient: instead of encouraging us to take collective action we are encouraged to take individual inaction, by complaining, filling in a bullying incident form, or going off sick. According to Angela Patmore, a trenchant critic of these developments, this ‘best to rest’ ethos can be viewed as the new opium of the masses (8).

The expansion of the category of the ‘bullied adult worker’ also has its roots in the growth of anti-harassment policies. Here, too, unions have portrayed workers as victims and sought recourse not through collective struggle but via institutional measures – measures which frequently increase management’s ability to control the behaviour of the workforce. However, because ‘harassment’ was too narrow a term, being frequently defined as ‘unwanted or harmful behaviour’ towards a minority group (based on their race, gender, sexuality and so on), it soon came to be replaced by the more expansive term ‘bullying’. The theme of ‘bullying’ could unite us all: black or white, male or female, homo or hetero, we could all be brought together as ‘potential victims’ under the bullying umbrella. In an age of difference, bullying is the one universal notion that the unions subscribe to.

In an anxious age, where we feel increasingly estranged from one another and are encouraged to view human relationships as potentially abusive, ‘bullying’ becomes a term through which we try to give meaning to the more unpleasant aspects of human interaction. It feeds off our insecurities. And it ultimately undermines our ability to act as autonomous adults. Of course, there are myriad examples of workplace conflict, and I’m sure most of you will have encountered some – from the threat of redundancy to incompetent bureaucratic managers powered by a desire to compromise staff’s ability to carry out their job effectively. Likewise, we have all had to deal with obnoxious colleagues at some time or other, and in extreme cases there may be a need for third-party intervention.

Nevertheless, we need to deal with these issues as rational adults. Equating the workplace with the playground, and seeing workers as big schoolchildren, is not only insulting to staff – it can also allow both management and the union to see themselves as in loco parentis looking after vulnerable ‘kidults’. Let us leave discussions about bullying at school where they belong; in the adult world we need adult debate about the problems we face at work today.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His book Social Work, Politics and Society: From Radicalism to Orthodoxy is published by Policy Press.

Previously on spiked

Ken McLaughlin said widening definition of mental illness and the increase in therapeutic measures put strain on mental healthcare. Mick Hume wondered when office politics became workplace bullying. The war against anger made Brendan O’Neill see red. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick urged us to get off the couch. Or read more at spiked issue Mental health.

(1) Guardian, 6 November 2001

(2) Observer, 4 November 2001

(3) ChildLine

(4) Helene Guldberg (2009) Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and play in an age of fear

(5) Beat the Office Bully on Ban Bullying at Work Day, Community Care, 7 November 2007

(6) Tim Field (2001) Bully in Sight: How to predict, resist, challenge and combat workplace bullying

(7) Combating workplace bullying in social work, Community Care, 22 July 2007

(8) Angela Patmore (2006), The Truth About Stress

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Topics Politics


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