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Bullies can cause office hell

Published on Thursday, 04 Nov 2010
Illustration: Martin Megino

Bullying is not restricted to children. From an ill-tempered boss to a foul-mouthed colleague, office bullies can turn the workplace into hell and make everybody pay dearly in the form of reduced productivity and even mental illness.

Susan Yu, a former bank teller, quit her job six months ago after being subjected to repeated abuse by a colleague, whom she describes as a "backstabber" pitting co-workers against her and blowing her mistakes out of proportion in front of senior executives.

"I was suffering from immense pressure," says Yu, who is in her 30s. "People didn't want to talk to me, I felt neglected and belittled, and my performance was adversely affected."

Yu says she also suffered from psychosomatic symptoms, such as frequent headaches and tiredness. "I felt sick all the time and had to apply for sick leave."

Professor Siu Oi-ling, head of sociology and social policy at Lingnan University, says office bullying is not uncommon in Hong Kong.

"Office bullying is classified as counter-productive behaviour," she says. "It doesn't have to involve physical fights. [Examples include] colleagues ganging up, excluding you from group lunches, cursing you or saying something that hurts or depresses you."

Victims are typically fraught with negative emotions and distress, and find it difficult to focus. The company also suffers, as more employees take absences or resign.

Professor Angela Shik Wai-yan, an assistant professor of social work at Chinese University, says a high level of stress usually triggers office bullying.

"Some people cannot manage their impulsive behaviour or control their anger. In the absence of a stress-releasing channel, they may displace their feelings on their colleagues," Shik says.

Matt Chan, a manager in manufacturing, says he would throw up every morning during the days when he led a large-scale project a few years ago. He says work was stressful and he couldn't help but vent his frustrations on his subordinates.

"The boss abused me and I abused others. Yet, after telling people off, I would pant as if I had been running like hell. I felt really bad," he says.

Shik is a former counsellor who offered services under the employee assistant programme (EAP) in Canada, designed to provide employees with confidential and professional assistance through assessment, referral and after-care. Shik suggests that in Hong Kong, more companies should provide EAP-like schemes to workers.

She says such programmes would help employees wrestle with stress and, in the long run, help lower medical costs, cut staff turnover rates, improve productivity and boost morale.

"An EAP system helps tackle [emotional] problems immediately once they surface," Shik says. "Often, all we need is to have someone to talk to when feeling frustrated."

Help is just a phone call away

  • The Mental Health Association of Hong Kong counsels at HK$100 per session for low-income earners, and HK$50 for the unemployed or welfare recipients. They offer free consultation at 2772 0047. People can assess their stress levels at www.mhahk.org.hk.
  • The Christian-based Breakthrough counsels people aged 18 to 30 years on work, stress, and emotional and relationship issues. Fees vary. Call 2377 8511 or visit www.breakthrough.org.hk.
  • Through www.hmdc.med.cuhk.edu.hk, the Hong Kong Mood Disorders Centre allows people to take free tests on their mental state. If you think you have problems, call 2833 0838 for individual counselling.

For coping strategies, please click here.

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