The 11th IAWBH Conference in Bordeaux project


The growing number of problems of bullying throughout the world is undoubtedly indicative of a profound transformation of work organization, but also of our society. Although we call it “harcèlement moral” in France and Belgium, “harcèlement psychologique” in Québec, “power harassment” in Japan, “mobbing” or “bullying” in other countries, nobody contests the reality of the phenomenon and its disastrous consequences on the health and the identity of the targets and on the organizations.

However it seems that there is currently a widening and a complexification of the concerns around the notion of bullying, opening the door to other issues of suffering or ill-being at work, which are grouped under the heading of 'psychosocial risks', and sometimes confused with harassment. This confusion has been accentuated in countries that have legally defined bullying, thus crystallizing the debate around it, until the introduction of the concept of “managerial harassment” in law, as it has been done in France, aimed at management methods implemented by a supervisor focused on an employee determined, by repeated acts with the purpose or effect of causing a deterioration in working conditions, that may affect his rights and dignity, alter his physical or mental health or jeopardize his professional future.” *

This of course leads us to re-examine the boundaries between bullying, stress, burn out, poor working conditions and other violence at work; debates which had already taken place as early as the first researches on this subject: “discussions can arise concerning the difference between stress and mobbing” (Leymann 1993). Leymann pointed out that a bad work environment could indirectly induce harassment: “very poor psychosocial conditions at workplaces may result in biological stress reactions (...). This in turn can stimulate feelings of frustration. (…) Frustrated people can, instead, blame each other, thus becoming each other's social stressors, and triggering a mobbing situation for a single person.” **

But the situation has become more complex. New work organizations focused on performance tend to exploit employees. More frequently we encounter situations where the methods of management themselves violate the respect that is due to each employee, deteriorating their health and causing them shame, humiliation and guilt.

In a global context of competitiveness, people are supposed to work more and more, always more quickly and they have to adapt continuously to new requirements and new technologies, without having time to think and do a good job. They are isolated, given more responsibilities and sometimes made to feel guilty. They are also put in competition with each other in order to select the best and eliminate those that are underperforming. But above all, work is dehumanized, no longer expressed in a human relationship but through numbers, objectives and results. Profitability is sought through standardization and control, without worrying about the consequences on someone’s physical or mental health.

In times of crisis the limit between what is simply tough management and bullying has become unclear. The employees are made to feel responsible for their success, but also their failures, or even for the bullying they suffer. Placed under permanent pressure, with fear of losing their jobs, employees dare not respond or rebel. Some resign themselves to this until they consider it as normal; others make the choice to leave large companies to invent other, more respectful ways to work where they can express better their creativity.

Despite laws or recommendations that exist in a number of countries, it is always difficult for targets to defend themselves. If employers begin to take into account stress, they are still reluctant to recognize bullying that seems too subjective for them and too linked to the personality of the employee. They continue to ignore the importance of the human factor in productivity. However, if we want to achieve a better sense of well-being in the workplace, individuals must be respected in their entirety with their potential weaknesses.

In discussing ways of prevention, we need to consider the evolution of the concept of bullying through its definition and its legal qualification, taking into account, not only the profound transformation of work organization, but also the cultural changes of our society.

* French Supreme Court ruling, November 10th, 2009, n° 07-45.321.

** Leymann H. (1996) The content and development of mobbing at work. European journal of work and organizational psychology, vol 5, number 2, 164-184.

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