Coping with Bullying at Work: How Do Targets, Bullies and Bystanders Deal with Bullying?
Morten Birkeland Nielsen, Eva Gemz0e Mikkelsen, Roger Persson and Stale Valvatne Einarsen
Coping and Bullying as Seen From the Perspective
of the Target 567
How Do Targets Cope With Workplace Bullying? 568
Self-Medication and Substance (Ab)use 572
Outcomes of Workplace Bullying: Transactional
Perspectives on Coping and Health Outcomes 574
Coping Strategies 574
The Impact of Individual Dispositions Related to
Accused of Bullying: How Does the Bully Cope? 578
How Does Bystanders Cope With Bullying? 580
Conclusions and Implications for Future Research 582
Numerous studies have documented that workplace bullying is associated with a range of detrimental outcomes for those exposed, including reduced health and well-being and increased absence from work (see Mikkelsen et al., this volume for an overview). In addition to the effects on those targeted, bullying may also impact the health and well-being of bystanders (Sprigg et al., 2019), and have even been shown to have negative effects for accused perpetrators (Jenkins et al., 2012). Theoretically, it is not surprising that workplace bullying relates to the health and well-being for those involved and especially those targeted (see Mikkelsen et al., this volume). A common feature of most theoretical models of the stressor-strain process is that repeated and/or chronic exposure to stressors in the working environment generates negative physical, psychological or behavioural changes in the individual that manifest themselves in longterm stress reactions which subsequently may lead to impaired health, reduced performance and job dissatisfaction.
However, another feature of most theoretical models, such as the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984), the Cognitive Activation Theory of Stress (Ursin and Eriksen, 2004) and other cognitively oriented research (e.g., Steptoe, 1991), is that there will be variations in levels of health complaints due to individual factors, such as differences in personality and cognitive functioning as well as in the ability to cope with stressors. Hence, with regard to bullying, it is likely that there are differences in how employees, be it targets, bystanders or perpetrators, perceive and cope with their experiences. While the knowledge concerning the reasons why a bullying process gets terminated is scarce (Butterworth et al., 2016), a general conception among practitioners and researchers within the field has been that most bullying processes are terminated by the target quitting voluntary, is laid off or enters a long-term sick leave (see also Zapf and Einarsen, 2005; Meschkutat et al., 2002). Yet, some studies have also shown that far from all targets leave their employer (Glambek et al., 2015). As such, throughout the bullying process, targets may differ in the strategies they employ to cope with the situation, and these coping efforts are likely to be influenced by both individual and situational factors, the latter including how bystanders and others respond and cope with the situation (Salin and Notelaers, 2018; Glambek etal.. 2016; Jenkins etal., 2012).
Consequently, to be able to understand how a workplace bullying process develops and subsequently influences involved employees' health and well-being, one will need to examine targets' choice of coping mechanisms, the factors influencing them and how this and other individual factors are related to their health outcomes. Moreover, as most bullying situations are complex, involving several actors and roles, we will also review empirical findings on how bystanders and perpetrators cope with and are affected by bullying at the workplace. The chapter starts out by providing a brief overview of coping as a concept and discuss different coping strategies, before turning to research findings on workplace bullying and coping as seen from the perspective of targets. This is followed by a review of the, to this date, scarce literature on the coping of bystanders and perpetrators.
People respond to perceptions of conflict, threat, harm and loss in many different ways, and these efforts to handle or manage demanding experiences are labeled as ‘coping’ (Carver and Connor-Smith, 2010). Conceptually, coping is defined as the cognitive and behavioural efforts made to master, tolerate, or reduce external and internal demands and conflicts among them (Folkman and Lazarus, 1980). To some extent, the relationship between coping and stress is reciprocal in that when coping is successful the experienced stress is lower (Lazarus, 1999). Importantly, the perception and appraisal of the challenges and demands (i.e., primary appraisal), the appraisal of options and available resources (i.e., secondary appraisal), and the responses selected (i.e., coping) are all integrated and essential components of the processes that determine our emotions and emotional life (Lazarus, 1999). As such, these components should only be separated from each other for analytical purposes (Lazarus, 1999). Indeed, these concepts are merely theoretical distinctions of the steps in the continuous cognitive processes that help the individual to evaluate their own relationship with the environment with respect to the implications for health and well-being (Lazarus, 1999).
The primary appraisal process consists of cognitive appraisal of the situation for its potential for challenge, harm or loss. If an employee perceives the situation as potentially harmful or threatening, a secondary appraisal process is initiated, centering on whether one has available options or adequate resources to meet the situational challenge to prevent threat of harm or loss. If individuals perceive that the challenge of the situation is taxing or exceeding the available options and resources, the model proposes that individuals experience strain (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984). Such strain signals an imbalance between demands and resources, which over an extended time-period may produce negative emotions and mental distress (e.g., anxiety, depression, exhaustion). Accordingly, the transactional model views emotions and the individual’s emotional life as to a large extent being determined by the individual’s ability to manage various life situations that her or she perceives as stressful and subsequently deal with (i.e., coping).
At the highest categorical level, coping strategies can be classified into active and passive responses (Bandler and Shipley, 1994; Ely and Henry, 1978; Obrist, 1981). In addition, whereas some coping strategies are generally considered as adaptive in that they improve functioning, other strategies are considered as maladaptive as they are associated with maintained or increased levels of strain and distress (Zeidner and Saklofske, 1996). Another commonly used distinction of coping strategies is between problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. The former refers to active attempts to eliminate the problem, whereas the latter describes attempts to attenuate discomfort by altering the individual's perception or appraisal of the problem. Even another distinction is between engagement coping (which is aimed at dealing with the stressor or related emotions), and disengagement coping (which is aimed at escaping the threat or related emotions)(Carver and Connor-Smith, 2010). Engagement coping includes problem-focused coping and some forms of emotion-focused coping such as support seeking, emotion regulation, acceptance and cognitive restructuring. Disengagement coping includes passive and maladaptive responses which include avoidance, denial, substance (ab-)use and wishful thinking (Bardwell et al., 2001; Holahan and Moos, 1986). Finally, several studies refer to the terms approach- and avoidance coping. Whereas approach coping refers to “engaged coping strategies in which the goal is to reduce, eliminate, or manage the internal or external demands of a stressor,” avoidance coping refers to "disengaged coping, in which the goal is to ignore, avoid, or withdraw from the stressor” (Nes and Segerstrom, 2006). Hence, when reviewing the literature on coping and bullying we may expect a plethora of concepts used across studies. This includes studies looking at how one may evaluate the relevance of the situation in the first place (the primary appraisal), on how one evaluates the available resources and possibilities to deal with the situation (secondary appraisal), as well as on how one act when exposed to bullying (coping).
To complicate things even further, individuals may use a variety of coping strategies in response to a stressful situation
(Folkman and Lazarus, 1985; Nielsen and Knardahl, 2014), and a variety of factors may influence the choice and effectiveness of the different kinds of coping (Aidwin and Revenson, 1987; Carver and Connor-Smith, 2010). While problem-focused strategies are generally effective when a challenging situation is perceived as manageable, this kind of approach can be maladaptive and detrimental to health when one is unable to change or control the situation (Carver and Connor-Smith, 2010). In such situations, emotional coping strategies such as the use of social support, humor and religion may be more beneficial as they tend to shift the focus away from the stressor. Disengagement coping responses such as avoidance, denial, self-blame and substance use, are, however, harmful in most situations (Carver and Connor-Smith, 2010).
In a theoretical paper on why bullying may be so detrimental to health, Zapf and Einarsen (2005) pinpointed the many reasons why exposure to bullying is problematic and difficult to cope with. First, being mistreated by peers while at work is of course highly unpleasant in itself. Secondly, bullying is often related to a loss of social support which also reduces the target's coping possibilities. Morover, bullying does not only drain social resources, it may also drain personal coping resources (including energy, your self-esteem, etc,) as it often preys on inadequicies in the target’s personality (Zapf and Einarsen, 2005). Finally, and the not least, bullying tends to lower ones control in the situation, which makes coping even more difficult.
Coping and Bullying as Seen From the Perspective of the Target
As discussed elsewhere in this book, workplace bullying describes a situation where an employee persistently and over a period of time, perceives him-/herself to be on the receiving end of negative actions from superiors or coworkers and where the employee finds it difficult to defend him-/herself against these actions. Hence, as a form of on-going negative social interaction, bullying is by definition dependent upon the targets inability to put an end to the ongoing negative treatment (Nielsen, Gjerstad, Jacobsen et al., 2017). When seen from the perspective of targets of bullying, attempts to manage or cope with, the bullying/bullying behaviours will impact on if and when they succeed in putting an end the exposure. Their coping strategies may also affect and moderate their reactions and thereby change the course of events when exposed. Furthermore, ways of coping may also determine associations between workplace bullying and outcomes, that is, as one of many mechanisms that may help explain a given outcome. Hence, the development of bullying as a stressor, as well as the outcomes following bullying, should be dependent upon an interaction between the severity and nature of the bullying behaviour and the individuals coping strategies.
In an analytical model for the bullying-outcome relationship, inspired by transactional stress theory (Lazarus and Folkman. 1984), Affective Events Theory (Weiss and Cropanzano, 1996) and CATS (Ursin and Eriksen, 2004), Nielsen and Einarsen (2012) proposed that coping and other person variables such as personality traits are highly important with regard to understanding how' workplace bullying affects individuals. That is, the impact of bullying on a target is expected to be highly influenced by person variables (e.g., goals, beliefs, personal resources and personality traits) and environmental circumstances (e.g., demands, opportunities and cultural setting) that alone or in combination influence the appraisal process and the coping responses mustered to deal with the bullying situation. Actually, it has been established that personality dispositions influence the frequency of exposure to stressors, the type of stressors experienced, appraisals of the stressor and the coping style of the given individual. For instance, according to Carver and Connor-Smith (2010, p. 688), an optimistic personality involves the expectation of good outcomes and an engaged approach to life, apparently reflecting the belief that good outcomes require some effort. Optimism should therefore relate positively to engagement types of coping, such as problem solving and cognitive restructuring, and inversely to avoidance or disengagement coping. On the other hand, pessimism involves the expectation of bad outcomes, which should promote distress and disengagement as coping. This suggest that in order to understand how-coping influence the relationship between bullying and health, one should also acknowledge the role of the target’s individual dispositions. In the following review of how targets can cope with the effects of bullying, we will therefore include findings specifically related to coping as well as findings from more general individual dispositions, e.g., personality traits.
How Do Targets Cope With Workplace Bullying?
With regard to the specific coping strategies used by targets, research indicates that avoidance or non-active goal-oriented coping behaviours are more common overall, although most targets at one point or another make an effort to stop the bullying by means of problem focused strategies (D’Cruz and Noronha, 2010; Dehue et al., 2012; Djurkovic et al., 2005; Glasp et al., 2011; H0gh and Dofradottir, 2001; Keashly et al., 1994; Olafsson and Johannsdottir. 2004; Reknes et al., 2016). This pattern seems to apply also across cultures (D'Cruz et al., 2016). Zapf and Gross (2001) found, in relation to the Exit Voice Loyalty Neglect (EVLN) theory (Withey and Cooper, 1989), that targets tended to try a range of different strategies, yet tended to end with neglect and exit. In fact, many targets first tried a variety of active and presumably constructive coping attempts, which did not actually work, resulting in withdrawal behaviours at work or simply leaving the organization. Zapf and Einarsen (2005) concluded after reviewing the early studies in this field that the most successful strategy seemed to be the one where the target withdraw from the bullying situation while trying to avoid providing the perpetrator reasons to bully them further. A more recent study by Van den Brande and colleagues (2019) investigated coping styles and coping resources in the relationship between work stressors and exposure to workplace bullying, employing a two-wave survey design and a three month time lag (V=482). Findings did not support the expected buffering role of T1 problem-focused coping on the relationship between role stress and subsequent exposure to bullying. Yet, emotion-focused coping amplified the relationship between T1 role conflict and T2 bullying, hence being a risk factor for bullying when facing role-stress.
A parallel finding was done in a study by Reknes et al. (2018) showing that the relationship between role stressor and exposure to bullying was moderated by the personality traits of trait anger and trait anxiety. Hence, reacting with anger and anxiety when facing stressors seem to make you more vulnerable to more exposure to bullying. Possibly, the target's reactions acts as reinforces to the perpetrator who becomes increasingly motivated to continue his or her bullying behaviour, thus increasing the target's likelihood of being exposed to bullying.
Recent qualitative studies have yielded additional insight into the dynamics of the targets’ process of coping with bullying, which, according to both transactional stress theory, cognitive activation theory of stress, and William’s (2009) temporal Need Threat Model play a central role in linking workplace bullying to individual stress reactions. Based on evidence from a range of early studies on how targets try to handle their situation. Zapf and Einarsen (2005) concluded that targets seem to change their coping behaviour as the exposure escalates (Niedl,
1996; Zapf and Gross, 2001). In line with this, and using in-depth interviews, Karatuna (2015) explored the nature and consequences of the coping strategies employed by 20 Turkish self-labelled targets exposed to repeated, prolonged acts of workplace bullying. Through content analysis, Karatuna identified five major themes, representing five sequential phases of the bullying process, and examined how the targets’ coped in the various phases. All targets in Karatuna’s (2015) study reported that during the first phase they were unsure as to what was happening, did not take it too seriously and therefore mainly used passive, often emotion-focused strategies such as keeping a distance to or ignoring the bully, using humor or even blaming themselves. In the second phase, the targets lost their patience as the bullying became more frequent and intense and they switched to problem-focused strategies, such as explaining to the bully how they felt or confronting him or her. These strategies did not work, however. In the third phase, the targets had developed various health problems and tried to cope with the situation using problem-focused strategies, such as informally talking to a superior, filing a formal complaint or asking for support from colleagues, or emotion-focused strategies such as talking with friends. Talking to their superior or HR was seen as fruitless, and filing a complaint was only successful if followed by appropriate organizational action. Likewise, seeking support from colleagues had mixed results, just as receiving counselling from professionals only relieved symptoms for some while. Hence, some experienced further stigmatization. In this phase the bullying ended for 10 targets, as most of them resigned their job. In the fourth phase, targets being low in energy and resources used avoidance-oriented strategies such as neglecting work tasks, ignoring the bully or being on sick leave. Some coped by gossiping or venting their frustration onto others. In the final fifth phase, the targets gave up. In all, sixteen of the targets resigned or planned to resign and three tried to obtain a transfer within their original organization (Karatuna, 2015).
Gamian-Wilk et al. (2017) explored coping strategies employed by Polish targets of bullying and non-targets at the early and escalated phases of a conflict, with targets in the first study (n = 143) recalling their coping strategies, while the second study (n = 94) was a two-wave longitudinal study. Results showed that in the initial stages of the conflict, targets had more intense psychological and physiological responses than non-tar-gets and were prone to using repression and avoidance and to excessively ruminate over their work situation. Yet, they also tried to mobilize themselves using self-control and relaxation techniques, also in threatening situations, as well as self-image strengthening thoughts that focused on their personal values generating self-oriented positive emotions. Similar to the findings of the Karatuna (2015) study, analyses of the targets’ coping during the early phases revealed that they appeared to have been conscious about facing a threat yet failed to understand its whys and wherefores and thereby did not know how to manage it constructively (Gamian-Wilk et al., 2017 p. 87). Instead of employing approach-oriented strategies such as seeking support, they focused on dealing with their own feelings. During the stages of escalated conflict, the targets’ coping strategies did not change much with excessive rumination and repression being the preferred strategy in addition to using cognitive re-appraisal to explain away the situation, trying to minimize its threat potential or searching for any positive aspects to it. Yet, the targets now also appeared more outwardly oriented seemingly attempting to enhance their social standing at the workplace by complementing other people, or stressing their strengths, in addition to voicing their own qualities. These strategies, which seemed to be applied too late, appear to fit well with Williams and Nida’s (2011) notion that belonging-and self-esteem needs will direct targets’ coping behaviour if they deem re-inclusion to be possible. However, the targets’ attempt to restore their frustrated needs tended to come too late. Had they reached out to others earlier, they might have enhanced their social standing towards colleagues and perhaps also received the support or inspiration they needed to combat the bullyins or to avoid the situation getting worse (Gamian-
Wilk et al., 2017).
In a recent cross-sectional study of 835 full-time Indian managerial employees, Rai and Agarwal (2018) explored target’s reactions to bullying based on the hypotheses that the psychological contract between the target and the organization would act as a mediator and workplace friendship as a moderator of the bullying—Exit Voice Loyalty Neglect (EVLN) coping strategies relationship. Based on the conservation of resources theory (COR) (Hobfol 1. 1989) and EVLN-theory (Withey and Cooper, 1989) and the extant literature, the authors hypothesized that workplace bullying would lead to the loss, or threatening of resources, associated with employees’ psychological contract with the workplace (e.g., fair treatment, respect and dignity) resulting in perceived psychological contract violation (PCV) (Rai and Agarwal, 2018). The associated negative emotions could then tax employees’ remaining psychological resources motivating them to withdraw from the organization or from the resource consuming behaviours. Results showed that workplace bullying was positively associated with exit and neglect and negatively associated with voice and loyalty as coping strategies. Moreover, workplace bullying significantly and positively impacted on PCV, the latter being positively related to exit and neglect and negatively related to voice and loyalty. PCV partially mediated the bullying—exit and bullying— neglect relationship and fully mediated the role of PCV in bullying—voice and bullying—loyalty relationships. Furthermore, workplace friendship negatively moderated relationships between bullying and exit and neglect strategies and positively moderated the bullying—voice and bullying—loyalty relationships. Yet, these moderating effects of friendship were argued to be rather weak. Hence, the authors conclude that exposure to workplace bullying was related to employee silence via the perception of a violation of their psychological contract with their organization. This effect was somewhat weaker for those reporting strong friendships at work.
Taken together, the early and recent qualitative and quantitative studies show how targets often use various coping strategies, yet for most to no avail. Results further point to (in) availability of external support (from private or work-related resources) as influencing the targets’ coping process (D'Cruz and Noronha, 2010; O’Donnell et al., 2010; Shallcross et al., 2013). While organizational factors may play a decisive role in the real or perceived availability of social support from colleagues, managers or HR-personnel, some studies (Gamian-Wilk et al., 2017; Karatuna, 2015) also show how targets may fail to seek social support in the critical early phases. This lack of support seeking may be because they do not fully understand the threat they are facing and/or do not know how to manage it constructively. They may even tend to focus more on their stress symptoms instead of reaching out for help.
Self-Medication and Substance (Ab)use
Self-medication can be considered a special form of coping in that the self-medicating individual ingests substances in order to alleviate symptoms or even to make their own existence tolerable. According to the work stress paradigm (Frone, 1999), the self-medication perspective posits that employees may use alcohol as a means of coping with work stressors. Data from a national probability sample of 1,608 Norwegian employees
(Nielsen, Gjerstad etal., 2017) found self-labelled victimization from workplace bullying (adjusted OR = 1.72; 95% CI = 1.06-2.81) to be positively related to problematic alcohol consumption (i.e., respondents reporting weekly alcohol consumption above WHO safe drinking thresholds). Yet, exposure to workplace bullying was negatively related to alcohol consumption after work (adjusted OR = 0.49; 95% = CI 0.29-0.82). With respect to the latter finding, the authors suggest that targets of bullying may be less likely to drink after work but drink more heavily when they do drink as a means of coping with the bullying (Nielsen, Gjerstad et al., 2017). As noted by the authors, their study supports previous findings linking workplace aggression with problematic alcohol use (McFarlin etal., 2001; Richman et al., 1999; Richman et al., 2002). A 10-year longitudinal study of 2,265 university employees also showed exposure to workplace harassment to be associated with future problematic drinking, even after controlling for previous drinking (McGinley et al., 2011).
Some targets may also self-medicate using drugs. In an early study based on a survey of a representative sample of 700 Tyrolean employees (Traweger et al., 2004), 20% of the targets took drugs repeatedly because of job problems as compared to 4.1% of the non-bullied employees. The prevalence of drug consumption increased from 5.6% on average to 85% when the employees were discontented with their jobs as well as exposed to bullying at work. A prospective Finnish study (Lallukka et al., 2012) studied the use of psychotropic medication in employees from Finland and found current and earlier exposure to bullying to be related to register-based prescriptions of psychotropic medication (e.g., antidepressants) up to 5 years after baseline, also when they adjusted for age and prior medication. Hence, the use of drugs as a coping strategy is not uncommon among targets of bullying.
While it often seems reasonable to view self-medication as a unique form of coping, it is interesting to note that Lazarus thought it to be a common misconception to view coping functions as discrete action types (Lazarus, 1999). In an example, he argued that if a person decided to dampen his or her test anxiety prior to a written exam by taking a diazepam pill, this would actually serve two functions. Firstly, the pill would reduce the emotional response (e.g., emotion focused coping). Secondly, it would increase the likelihood of achieving a good performance (i.e., problem focused coping), (p. 123). Another common misconception, according to Lazarus, is to separate coping from the personality of the coper. Thus, in order to fully understand the coping responses one needs also an idea about the individual’s goals, commitments, resources and beliefs about the self and the world, that is, personality variables. (Lazarus, 1999).
Outcomes of Workplace Bullying: Transactional Perspectives on Coping and Health Outcomes
Having examined the strategies that targets use to cope with their exposure to bullying, we now turn to findings on how the use of different coping strategies influence the targets' health and well-being following bullying. Here we will first present findings on specific coping strategies, before we turn to the role of individual dispositions that could influence how targets cope.
In research on coping as a conditional factor, findings from cross-sectional research indicate that passive coping strategies such as denial, mental and behavioural disengagement from work tasks tend to amplify the relationships between bullying and negative health outcomes (Maidaniuc-Chirila. 2015; Park and DeFrank, 2004; Reknes etal., 2016). In a quantitative cross-sectional study of 100 white-collar employees, Bernstein and Trimm (2016) explored the extent to which coping behaviours in the form of seeking help, assertiveness, avoidance and doing nothing, moderated the relationship between workplace bullying and individual and organizational outcomes. The results showed that problem-focused/approach-oriented strategies such as ‘seeking help’ and ‘assertiveness’ weakened the negative association between workplace bullying and psychological well-being and self-esteem. In contrast, emotion-focused/avoid-ance-oriented strategies like ‘doing nothing’ and ‘avoidance’ amplified the associations. In line with this, a cross-sectional study of a random sample of the Dutch working population. Dehue et al. (2012) showed that emotion-focused coping strategies such as compensation, denial and attempts to positively reinterpret the situation strengthened the positive associations between bullying and outcomes in the form of depressive symptoms, poorer well-being and greater absenteeism. In a US study of 314 working adults, Welbourne et al. (2016) found that employees who typically used problem-focused coping experienced greater negative outcomes associated with incivility. Mixed results were found for employees who typically engaged in emotion-focused coping at work as frequent use of avoidant coping and religious coping buffered against the impact of incivility, whereas support seeking coping styles strengthened the negative outcomes. In a study of 3,127 employees from South East Asia, problem-focused coping was found to be protective with regard to well-being and performance for employees that were sometimes targeted by bullying. However, this kind of coping was found to be detrimental to well-being for those who were persistent targets of bullying (Hewett et al., 2016).
As noted by several authors (e.g.. Bernstein and Trimm, 2016; Reknes et al., 2016; Van den Brande et al., 2017), the moderating role of problem-focused/approach-oriented coping strategies with regard to the health problems following bullying may be governed by the interplay between the two concepts “pow'er” and “control”. In this context, power refers to the targets’ relative degree of power compared to the perpetrator/per-petrators. Since the relative degree of power for various reasons may fluctuate during the bullying process, this would presumably lead to the targets experiencing varying degrees of control throughout the process as well as in its specific phases. When in power or having access to it, the use of problem-focused coping strategies is likely to w'ork (Van den Brande et al., 2017). Conversely, having less power by means of one’s hierarchal position in the work organization, or by lacking supportive networks (or organizational structures), the use of problem-focused strategies could be futile or even violate group and organizational norms with respect to conflict management behaviour. Hence, pow'er relates to controllability of the individual targets’ possibilities of exerting a positive influence with regards to the bullying situation (Van den Brande et al., 2017). When targets learn that their coping strategies are to no avail, this may prove especially problematic for individuals who, based on previous experiences and/or dispositional factors, expect to be able put an end to the bullying acts (Park and DeFrank, 2004). As such, one could argue that, irrespective of dispositional tendencies, targets with strong formal or informal power and who have sufficient external resources to assist them in the process, would be more likely to put an end to the bullying at an early stage and therefore experiencing less health problems following the bullying. Even in the case of long-term bullying they may have access to resources that can buffer the adverse health and social effects of bullying.
However, in review of the literature on workplace aggression in general, Aquino and Thau (2009) concluded that it may be both difficult and detrimental for targets to try to combat the bullying. Their findings showed that the coping strategy that appears to consistently produce a significant improvement in a target’s current circumstances is finding a way to avoid the perpetrator(s) or to leave the situation. Strategies that involve an active response to the perpetrator (e.g., fighting back with similar means, talking to the bullies) often significantly aggravates the situation by escalating the conflict. In a three-way longitudinal study Hershcovis and colleagues (2018) found that confrontation and avoidance were ineffective in preventing reoccurrence of workplace incivility (a concept related to bullying), thus making the situation significantly worse by escalating the conflict, as noted above. Furthermore, avoidance was related to increased emotional exhaustion, target-enacted incivility and lower psychological forgiveness.
The Impact of Individual Dispositions Related to Coping
Several studies, mainly of cross-sectional designs, have showed how individual dispositions related to coping, such as social anxiety (Moreno-Jimenez et al., 2007), assertiveness ((Moreno-Jimenez et al., 2007), negative affect (Hansen et al., 2006; Mikkelsen and Einarsen, 2002), self-efficacy (Spence Laschinger and Nosko, 2015), generalized self-efficacy (Mikkelsen and Einarsen, 2002) and sense of coherence (SOC) (Nielsen et al., 2008) may influence the impact of bullying on health outcomes. A Korean study which explored the role of proactive personality in the bullying-health outcomes among 211 employees (Park and DeFrank, 2004) is interesting in this respect. Proactive personality was defined as an individual who is ‘relatively unconstrained by situational forces, and who effects environmental change, scans for opportunities, shows initiative, takes action and perseveres until one reaches closure by bringing about change’. Results showed that pro-active personality moderated the impact of workplace bullying on physical strain. Furthermore, proactive personality influenced coping choices and one of these, positive reinterpretation coping, mediated the relationship between proactive personality and strain. Moreover, proactive personality also played a role in moderating the relationship between coping strategies and strain. Yet, unexpectedly, results showed that the more highly proactive people engaged in support-seeking coping strategies, the more strain they experienced, while less proactive individuals appeared to benefit from using active coping strategies, which although not significantly changing the situation, could increase their sense of control (Park and DeFrank, 2004). Conversely, when exposed to intense and/or long-term bullying, targets with a proactive personality would react negatively to the realization that they could not change the situation. Presumably, employees with a proactive personality may be more resilient in relation to changes and thereby also more resilient when facing workplace bullying. They may have more relevant internal and external resources to use given that they are more likely to take proactive initiatives, to have better political skills and being better at building social network (Park and DeFrank, 2004). Yet, when not succeeding they may also react more strongly.
Yet, a range of studies have failed to demonstrate a moderating effect of individual dispositions in the bullying—health relation. Matthiesen and Einarsen (2004) found that state NA (and state positive affectivity) neither moderated nor mediated relationships between bullying and PTSD symptoms and other psychological symptoms. In a small cross-sectional sample (n=127), Djurkovic et al. (2006) also found that neuroticism did not moderate the relationship between bullying and psychological symptoms. In fact, neuroticism did not correlate significantly with bullying at all. A Norwegian study of 1,017 employees working in the offshore oil and gas industry, showed that global self-esteem did not moderate the relationship between bullying behaviours and symptoms of anxiety (Nielsen et al., 2013).
Finally, some studies have found that individual dispositions moderate the association between bullying and outcomes, albeit in a manner that seems to go against established stress models. That is, based on the Transactional model of stress and coping (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984) personality resources such as high hardiness or positive affect, should be protective factors with regard to the effects of bullying on those targeted. However, illustrating a reverse buffering effect, findings from both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies on the moderating effects of factors such as sense of coherence (Nielsen et al., 2008), self-labeling as a victim of bullying (Hewett et al., 2016; Vie et al., 2011), ability to defend (Nielsen, Gjerstad, Jacobsen et al., 2017), agreeableness (Hies et al., 2011), coping style (Reknes et al., 2016) and optimism (Britton et al., 2012) have shown that these personal resources only have a protective effect against health complaints in cases of no or only low-exposure to aggression and bullying at the workplace. In cases of high exposure, targets report equally high levels of mental distress irrespectively of their individual predispositions or coping styles. Actually and rather surprisingly, bullying has been found to be most strongly related to increased health problems among those who are expected to be able to cope with the bullying, something that may indicate that high intensity bullying is detrimental for all irrespective of their coping resources.
This somewhat surprising finding may be explained by an experience of situational incongruence among those with the most robust coping resources (Nielseni Gjerstad, Jacobsen et al., 2017). Building on a person-environment fit perspective, the situational-congruence model proposes that a person will experience more positive and less negative affect when there is congruence between a given situation and their personality (Pervin. 1993). In contrast, individuals will experience heightened negative affect in situations that are incompatible with their personality characteristics (Diener et al., 1984; Hies et al., 2011). It is therefore likely that health problems will emerge as a response when the individual experience an incongruence between self-concept (T am able to cope with bullying’) and external exposures (being unable to stop the systematic exposure to bullying behaviours) as this creates an imbalance between the targets own perception of him-/herself and actual life experiences (see also Nielsen and Einarsen. 2018).
Taken together, findings on how coping impact the health and well-being of targets of bullying are mixed and inconsistent. Whereas some studies indicate that, at least, problem solving coping strategies are somewhat beneficial, other studies suggest that it is difficult or even impossible for targets to cope with bullying on their own. However, as most studies to this date are based on cross-sectional designs, they only provide a brief snapshot of the bullying process. Future research on the role of coping in the association between bullying and well-being among those exposed should therefore be based on more advanced, preferably time-lagged, designs that can provide knowledge about the long-term effectiveness of different coping strategies.
Accused of Bullying: How Does the Bully Cope?
Having examined the role of coping among targets of bullying, we now turn to the accused bully. While targets have been found to suffer a wide range of health effects following exposure to workplace bullying, less focus has been on the reactions of the alleged bully. In cases where an accused perpetrator disagree with the allegations of bullying, a range of feelings related to unfairness may arise and he or she may even feel victimized by the process or the employers' conclusions, hence in itself being a strong stressor or even perceived as a traumatic event. Even in cases where an employee or manager has accepted having exposed others to bullying or bullying behaviours, this role experience and likely associated changes in self-perceptions, may inflict feelings of guilt and shame. A pending question is therefore how the accused bullies cope with this situation. Although relatively few studies have examined how employees handle accusations of bullying, a few studies exist that may shed some light on this issue.
As a starting point, bullying of others may actually result from a dysfunctional attempt at coping with one’s own exposure to bullying. That is, in some cases bullying behaviours may be a ripple effect in which frustrations and anger are displaced onto other individuals (Lee and Brotheridge. 2006). As personal identity is salient during interpersonal conflict, individuals may perceive that their identity has been threatened or attacked and targets may thus mistreat and harass others as a means of repairing an eroded sense of self (see also Zapf & Einarsen, this volume).
From research on targets of bullying, we know that some cope with their exposure to bullying by leaving the organization and seeking employment elsewhere. A range of studies have shown a link between exposure to bullying and intentions to leave (see other chapters in this volume for an overview), with a few studies also showing increased actual turnover (Glambek et al., 2015), increased absence rates (Nielsen et al., 2016), and early retirement (Nielsen. Emberland et al., 2017). On this backdrop, Glambek et al. (2016) investigated whether selfdefined bullies also showed a tendency to leave their present employment, for instance as an outcome of an investigation or as a way of coping with allegations or even treats of being subjected to formal investigations. The study examined the associations with a five-year time-lag in a representative sample of the Norwegian workforce and found that self-proclaimed bullies had no increased risk of leaving their current employment compared to workers in general, even over such a long time period. However, contrasting the findings of Glambek and colleagues. Jenkins and colleagues' (2012) interview study among 24 managers accused of bullying, found that one in four (25%) were dismissed or forced to resign their employment as a result of the bullying accusations. Interestingly, only a couple of them admitted to have exhibited bullying, and then only on a ‘rare occasion’. Most of the participants denied the allegations made against them, claiming that they had ‘never’ bullied anyone. In spite of this, in one fourth of the cases, the allegations were substantiated in the employer's formal investigation. Yet, all of the managers participating in the study admitted to some level of negative workplace, yet claiming their behaviours was not bullying. In their view, their actions were reasonable, albeit also unpopular acts, following from their role as a manager. Indeed, most claimed to be a target of bullying themselves, working in a highly stressful and conflict-ridden workplace where inappropriate social behaviours were quite common. The unwillingness to accept accusations of bullying, even in cases where the claims were substantiated, suggests that denial and rejection, as well repression are likely coping strategies among some bullies. In the interview study by Jenkins and colleagues (2012), as many as 50% of the alleged bullies went on sick leave for shorter or longer periods, felt unable to work and that their career and reputation were destroyed. Some even contemplated suicide. Hence, more research is needed on the reactions and possible coping mechanisms of individuals accused of bullying.
These findings also put focus on the responsibility of the organization, not only for preventing bullying, but also in implementing policies to secure fair procedures when complaints are made. Even more, bullies may need support and treatment to a similar extent as do targets.
How Does Bystanders Cope With Bullying?
Although most of the literature on workplace bullying focuses on targets or perpetrators, it should be acknowledged that bystanders also play an important role in the development of bullying (Mulder et al., 2017; Pouwelse et al., 2018). Besides, research findings indicate that bystanders may also experience negative effects of workplace bullying (Hansen et al., 2013; Sims and Sun, 2012; Sprigg et al., 2019). For instance, in a large scale British study, bystanders also reported somewhat elevated levels of health problems, sickness absenteeism and intent to leave, as well as lower levels of productivity, job satisfaction and commitment as compared to non-observers (Hoel and Cooper, 2000). Although the impact of bullying on bystanders has been found to be partly confounded by the bystanders own exposure to bullying (Nielsen and Einarsen, 2013), studies indicate that being a bystander and observing bullying of others can be detrimental to the observers mental health, job satisfaction, commitment and sleep quality (Salin and Notelaers, 2018; Sprigg et al., 2019).
Studies have also examined how bystanders deal with bullying and how individual and situational factors affect their propensity for displaying prosocial or antisocial behaviour as regards the targets in bullying situations (see also Niven et al., this volume). Focusing on individual factors, research on bullying among children indicates that bystander behaviour, specifically defending the victim, is dependent on the bystander’s social competence and collective feelings of self-efficacy related to defending behaviour (Parris et al., 2019). Hence, individual dispositions and beliefs about their own capabilities seem to be important for how bystanders intervene in cases of bullying. As regards bystanders’ reactions to workplace bullying, a survey study employing a single vignette (Hellemans et al., 2017) showed that participants low in general self-efficacy reported a high fear of intervening. Hence, self-efficacy may increase bystanders’ likelihood of intervening. Following the deontic model of justice (Cropanzano et al.. 2003), bystanders’ moral identity, a self-concept organized around moral traits (e.g., being fair, caring, kind and friendly), motivates moral action. Individuals high in moral identity will react more strongly to injustice, wherefore they will be more likely to constructively intervene by either supporting the target and/or confronting the bully (Skarlicki and Rupp, 2010; Pouwelse et al., 2018). Hence, besides being influenced by situational factors (Pouwelse et al., 2018) which will not be reviewed here, bystanders’ individual dispositions, their moral beliefs and their beliefs about their own capabilities seem to influence how they intervene in cases of bullying. Moreover, bystanders’ individual dispositions may also influence the degree to which observing bullying affects their mental health. Indeed, a prospective study of 194 UK employees explored whether trait optimism buffered the effects of observed bullying. Results showed that witnessing bullying undermined employees’ well-being (work-related depression and anxiety) 6 months later, but only if the employees were low-in optimism (Sprigg et al., 2019). For those who were high in optimism, witnessing bullying did not impact well-being. These associations remained significant also when adjusting for the bystander’s own exposure to bullying. Dispositional optimism has been found to be positively associated with approach coping strategies aiming to eliminate, reduce, or manage stressors or emotions and negatively associated with avoidance coping strategies seeking to ignore, avoid, or withdraw from stressors or emotions (Nes and Segerstrom, 2006). An interpretation of the findings by Sprigg and colleagues (2019) is therefore that certain employees may be more or less susceptible to the negative effects of observing bullying and thereby also less likely to be able to cope with the experience. For more information on the role of bystanders in bullying scenarios, please see Niven and colleagues (this volume).
Conclusions and Implications for Future Research
Although the nature, antecedents and outcomes of workplace bullying have been thoroughly investigated over more than three decades, it is only in recent years that coping has emerged as a prominent issue in bullying research, possibly due to a strong focus on work environment factors a general as predictors of bullying and fear of “blaming the victim”. Whereas the early studies tended to focus on how targets tried to handle the bullying situation in itself, often based on rather crude measures and little theory, recent studies have also focused on the moderating role of coping through the use of established theoretical frameworks and with more advanced research designs (Van den Brande et al., 2016). Yet, much is still to gain in this field, especially since research provides a rather pessimistic view of the situation with regard to the targets’ abilities to cope with the bullying on their own. Based on the literature reviewed in the present chapter, targets seem not necessarily able to manage the situation by themselves and by their own attempts of coping, even when they are assumed to use presumably effective coping strategies and hold robust personal dispositions. Many targets seem to become passive in early phases of the bullying and experience that they have little to offer that may help them as things escalate, not uncommonly ending in a situation where that target leave the organization altogether. Even more, while some studies show' that some coping strategies may be helpful and some individual dispositions may w'ork to buffer and alleviate the potential negative health outcomes, many studies show that this is not necessarily the case. Individual resources and coping strategies normally associated with good health and positive coping with normal demands in life, seem not to work as effectively when employees face long lasting and intense situations of exposure to workplace bullying (see also Nielsen and Einarsen, 2018). However, since the operational definitions of coping behaviours in questionnaires often divide and treat coping behaviours as discrete action types, which do not allow for a deeper understanding of the underlying dynamics, it is also conceivable that some contradictions are dependent of imperfect and/or ill-timed measurement of the coping constructs.
We therefore need far more research in this field as the role of coping strategies and their possible dispositional traces in the bullying process is multifactorial and complex. Coping strategies may itself be an antecedent or risk factor of subsequent exposure to bullying. Some coping strategies may in themselves create frustrations and irritations in others w'ho then may revenge or otherwise turn against the target, particularly when facing stressful and less than optimal circumstances in the working environment, as shown by Reknes and colleagues (2018). The coping strategies chosen by those targeted may also be affected by the very bullying experience (see Zapf and Einarsen, 2005), as also shown and documented in the present chapter. Furthermore, different kinds of coping strategies may be more or less effective in putting an end to, or reduce, one’s exposure, depending on the level or the intensity of the bullying a given target faces. Different coping strategies may work differently depending on levels of exposure. What may work in an early phase of an interpersonal conflict may not work the same way in a full-blown case of bullying. Even more, coping strategies that may be effective in the hands of an employee feeling safe and well-integrated in his or her employment role, may work very differently when tried out by someone who is anxious, frustrated and feeling left out of the social group of the team or the department. Even more, while research has looked at how coping strategies directly, and personal disposition more indirectly, may work in relation to the prevention and handling of bullying, more and more research has also looked at how different ways of coping and their dispositional counterparts may influence the individual reactions and health-related outcomes resulting from bullying. So far, this line of research are also far from being able to provide any consistent advice to targets on how to best protect one's own health, wellbeing and sanity when in this predicament. This leads us to another way coping and bullying may interact; bullying may change the way people cope or even the very way they are as a person (Nielsen and Knardahl, 2015; Podsiadly and Gamian-Wilk, 2016). Hence, changes in coping as a result of bullying may act as a mediator in the relationship between bullying and health outcomes. Actually, it may even be the case that severe exposure to bullying crushes and destroys ones coping strategies, even among those with presumably effective dispositions and a long history of being able to cope with the stress of life.
Following this somewhat pessimistic, and probably somewhat confusing, view of targets possibilities to effectively cope with bullying and its aftermaths, research should turn its attention to organizational factors and supports systems that may either replace the potential role of individual coping strategies or at least may support and strengthening the efforts of targets. Promising concepts in this respect seems to be psychosocial safety climate (Dollard and Bakker, 2010) and climate for conflict management (Rivlin, 2001). Studies of the latter has shown that while individual perceptions of such a climate buffers the relationship between bullying and lowered job engagement (Einarsen et al., 2018), team level conflict management climate remove the risk for exposure to bullying arising from well-known demands in the psychosocial working environment such as role-stressors (Zahlquist et al.. 2019). In relation to the former, Kwan and colleagues (2016) showed how the psychosocial safety climate as perceived by targets seems to affect the coping strategies they choose as well as their effectivity. While targets experiencing a strong psychosocial safety climate tended to voice their concern leading to a swift resolution of the bullying, employees in weak climate tended to neglect or comply before exiting the organization as these cases remained unresolved. More research is needed along such lines to help and support targets both in earlier and later phases of a bullying scenario.
Finally, and as shown above, more research is also needed regarding the coping strategies of observers, individuals accused of bullying as well as perpetrators who have been found to have bullied in internal investigations. Being the focus of complaints and investigations as an accused perpetrator will of course be a highly stressful situation and a risk factor for health problems. As companies provide better complaints possibilities and as norms and values against bullying become stronger and more condemning, the more employees will face such accusations and the more stressful it will be for those on the accused end. Hence, we need to focus on how perpetrators may cope with this, not the least if these investigations are not well and fairly conducted. This latter focus on perpetrators should also include studies of how former bullies may re-enter their role and position in the working environment in a constructive and hopefully swift way.
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