Posted by: scottishboomerang | June 10, 2008

How to create a Mentally Healthy Workplace

Of course, its not HR any more. It’s Human Capital Management. While many firms are fond of saying that “our people are our assests” the truth is they don’t really behave like assesets. They behave like investors – of money, perhaps, but also of their time, goodwill, expertise, and yes, their career path.  Any manager with an ounce of common sense is going to want to capitalise on that investment, and with any luck, encourage their people to invest more. In a nutshell, Human Captial Management should be what HR is all about. In the next few blog articles on The Scottish Boomerang, I’ll be exploring how encourage good pactice, and repair bad practice, in order, with the grace of the angels, to stop things becoming ugly in your workplace.

Workplace bullying is a serious, endemic threat in the modern workplace. It is insideous, it creeps up, it poisons working enviroments, decreases productivity and is hideously expensive. The Fields Foundation puts the cost of workplace bullying to the UK economy at roughly £3.8 billion a year – and rising – and obviously, we want to avoid it.   Workplaces which allow individual bullying to go on soon find the problem becomes endemic and instutionalised – even to the extent where, like racism of old, it becomes embedded in policies, practices and procedures.  A toxic, pathological workplace fails its people, its customers or clients, and ultimately society. Few of these survive in competative market (no surprises then to learn that its in the public and voluntary sector where workplace bullying is at its worse). Unions are often ineffectual (or have their own internal bullying problems). In bullying-riddled workplace, HR usually spends its days hopping from grievance to grievance, from meeting to meeting, putting out the fires and crisis manageing, rather than turning its attention to positive, collabourative management strategies.    However, with a little foresight and front-loading of Human Resource policies and procedureIn the best firms, the work of HR is a light-handed work, stepping in only occassionally when the need arrises.

So how to create this positive, mentally healthy, bully-free environment? The work of this falls on our often unappriciated and overstetched HR Officer.   I recommend the following formula:

  • Recognise the need for change, and the rights of everyone in your organisation (including you!) to work in a safe and healthy environment.
  • Redraft policies which aren’t working,  policies such as Repect and Work/ Dignity at Work/Grievance procedures to see where they need tightening or changing. Obviously, if you don’t have an anti-bullying policy, now is the time to draft one.
  • Review and monitor your policies. Indicators of workplace bullying include things like higher-than-average attrition rates, sickness rates, lawsuits, tribunal hearings, disciplinary hearings and grievance procedings.
  • Record all your grievance and disciplinary hearings properly, noting down if personal disputes or conflict in the workplace is at the source. Pay special attention to the signs of workplace bulling.
  • Retrain managers and staff in mentally unhealthy teams. Remember that HR also needs this training from time to time.
  • Remove managers and staff  shown to be involved in bullying. Not shunt them sideways, and for goodness sake don’t promote them: sack them or ask them to resign.  They make your workplace unsafe and are a liability.  Make bullying as serious an issue as theft.  Make attrition rates part of the performace appraisal for team leaders and yes, senior managers too.
  • Renew your effors annually. Audit your workplace bullying. Taking it seriously means doing stuff to stop it and keep it out of the workplace.

In addition,  employees who become the targets of bullying are often the most competent and capable in your workplace.  Those that can, do. Those that cannot, bully others to cover up a sense of inadequancy.  In the toxic working environment incompentance and lack of productivity reign supreme.   Acknowledge as best you can, when interviewing bullied employees who have become to ill to continue, that they are not to blame, and that you will take concrete action to ensure their workplace is safe. Above all, do not blame or threaten your employee – a target of this kind of abuse is not to blame. Do this, and you might be taking the abuse from the personal to the corporate level, thus making your organisation legally liable.

It might not be fair, but the buck stops with HR much of the time in these sorts of disputes.  As an HR Officer, you do have a choice about whether to act positively by creating a bully-free, mentally healthy, safe environment for employees or to continue with an expensive and destructive status quo. Decide in favour of the latter, and you should examine your conscience and your balance sheet.

As I’ve written elsewhere, bad business ethics is really, really bad for business.

In the end.



  1. I look forward to reading more of your posts on encouraging a good work enviornment. Personally I have had great success thru a self-help book called “Dealing With Divas“. It showed me how to stick up for myself with my bully boss. I love my job, but I needed to learn how to create for myself a better working situation. I can thankfully say that I am much happier now.

  2. This is a really good post on workplace bullying from an HR perspective. Can you offer advice on preventing a bullying culture from starting in the first place?

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