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April 2017
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Work, which is often considered to be just a daily necessity, is, potentially, an important part of many people’s lives. It is a means of fulfilment, it can promote self-confidence and personal skills and, sometimes, it can be a distraction from personal problems. However, the workplace can sometimes become an uncomfortable place where people can be violent or can harass other people (mobbing) which, in turn, discourages the victims and affects their psychological health, and mobbing can even go so far as to affect the victims’ self-esteem.

Mobbing: from groups of animals to groups of humans

The image of what is observed in ethology, regarding the study of the aggressive behaviour of groups of animals which often involves small groups getting together to attack a bigger animal/group, was soon used to study human behaviour too. Konrad Lorenz first used the word mob to describe a group of birds (of the same species) that got together to attack members of their community whom they considered to be dangerous, distancing it or killing it through an action called ‘mobbing’. Following this, Doctor Heinemann used the term for a short time to describe childlike human behaviour, which was initially observed in schools and which consisted of a group being aggressive towards another child, however this was then defined as ‘bullying’. Heinemann also defined mobbing, at the beginning on the 1980s, as a type of adult behaviour, similar to that of children bullying others at school, but doing it to work colleagues. Today, this term is used more widely to refer to the discomfort felt at work when groups or individuals do things to colleagues, such as harass them, boss them about or abuse them.

Ways to harass workers

The classification of types of mobbing refers to roles but it also includes two categories, one of which can cause discomfort and the other which consists of similar methods of persecution and harassment which are more subtle.

Hierarchy or vertical mobbing is done by bosses/owners to their workers, who may be subjected to carry out humiliating jobs, their ability to make independent decisions may be removed or they may have to do jobs which they are not capable of so they make mistakes and thus get reprimanded or complained about. The victims are often subjected to public calls or registers and, if absent from work, are put forward for regular medical check-ups when off work. These workers also get given poor quality offices and office furniture compared to others in the company and to those who have the same role, and their offices are often isolated, dim, the equipment (computer, printer, telephone) breaks a lot, seats and desks are uncomfortable and the mobbers give explicit authorisation to others to use the victim’s office when they need to or move or take away his/her personal objects or working materials from the office, especially when he/she is absent.

Other types of mobbing behaviour include encouraging or authorising behaviour which affects the victims health, like putting the air conditioning on very cold/hot despite the victim complaining about his/her health and ability to work, or even using deodorants or cleaning products which the victim is allergic to. In addition, the harasser(s) may also allow the people who work in the victims office to smoke there. Mobbing can also take the form of paying the victim less than others who do the same job and turning down any request from them, verbal or written, and excessively checking the amount of time the victim takes for breaks, what time they arrive/leave and his/her work. Generally, the reasons which cause people to mob others can be not liking the victim, thinking he/she is incompetent, unproductive or, conversely, the mobber can be scared that the victim will take his/her job or it may be the result of refusing to go out/have sexual relations or covering up illegal activities. The aim of the harassing behaviour can be to get the victim to quit because he/she no longer feels capable or useful in terms of the company’s objectives. This is called strategic mobbing. Emotional mobbing is simply related to a superior person’s arrogance which is aimed at imposing his/her power and supremacy on the victim, or when the behaviour is fuelled by various racism, cultural, religious or other aspects which the mobber disagrees with.

Horizontal mobbing is when colleagues isolate another colleague so he/she cannot carry out his/her job, or it can involve attacks on his/her physical health, which are similar to those described in the hierarchy mobbing section, as well as behaviour aimed at psychological imbalance through humiliation and destroying self-esteem. Environmental mobbing involves smoking continually, despite anti-smoking rules and requests to respect these rules, or other types of invasions and behaviour regarding controlling the environment, in addition to continual criticism and attempts to discredit the victim, along with manipulating information regarding work and outside work activities (for example, company parties) so as to exclude the mobbing victim.

The psycho-social risk on work

Research into work psychology shows that there are some psycho-social risk factors that can encourage mobbing which must be assessed in order to guarantee the health and safety of workers. One of the most important factor is the predominance of males/females in a working environment as this can cause workers to form coalitions against minorities. Statistical data shows a mild prevalence of mobbing on women, especially in territorial contexts where the culture is not yet open enough to females in the workplace and having women in positions of responsibility.

Another important aspect is the presence of a risky organisational culture in which there are problem-facilitating factors, the most common of which are a tolerant organisational culture, an insufficient personnel policy and stressed out leaders who are not capable of limiting tension factors.  

Certain organisational behaviour, listed below, is also considered capable of facilitating mobbing:

  • pointless work tasks or not assigning tasks at all which, in turn, forces inactivity and a sense of uselessness;
  • a tendency to constantly send people on trips which are not really related to work or normal working life;
  • the tendency to put too much effort into work as far as time available, skills or illness (psychological or physical) are concerned;
  • repeating the same activity and checking it over, even for the smallest of jobs.

Even the organisation of the environment can be a risk factor of mobbing, especially if it concerns bad management of space or the workplaces are physically hard to get to.

Reports about this problem underline the existence of workplaces that are more predisposed to this phenomenon and these include organisations in which the management relies on more than one hierarchy, thus signs of the problem, or the constant conflicts which are happening which characterise mobbing, are not so clear to superiors. According to epidemiological data, these characteristics usually occur in schools, universities, hospitals and religious institutes.

The process of mobbing

The previously described behaviour regarding conflicts can, in some way, be a natural part of someone’s working life. In mobbing contexts, aggression becomes habitual and verbal and non-verbal communication becomes systematically hostile, creating clear signals that mobbing is happening, such as:

- the systematic nature of harassment that, in terms of mobbing, are carried out habitually and continually for at least six months;
- the tendency to unarm the victim, putting him/her in situations in which they feel impotent and incapable of controlling their daily work activities, depriving him/her of all points of reference and stability;
ruining the victim’s reputation, which can strongly destabilise his/her psychological equilibrium;
compromising the victim’s work performance so he/she is not able to use their skills properly , thus he/she finds him/herself in positions where he/she risks being blamed or making mistakes which can damage the company, him/herself or third parties.

Mobbing is a complex problem which is difficult to define and which can, over time, transform into something else. For this reason, it best to talk about a ‘process of mobbing’ that covers all its general phases of change, since these are different from one case to another (see table 1).


PHASE 1 Normal workplace conflicts remain constantly unresolved, thus becoming ‘the norm’ and growing in intensity. This represents the ‘stepping stone phase’ but it is not yet a case of actual mobbing.

PHASE 2 The victim is labelled from the moment in which he/she has to behave defensively. During this phase, the mobbee begins to experience health problems and the stress is somatised in various ways, the most common of which are sleep problems, panic attacks, anxiety and digestive problems. Other physical problems deriving from mobbing include headaches, tremors, tachycardia and skin disorders, whilst on a psychological level other repercussions include isolation and self-esteem problems which can lead on to more serious problems like rare and serious psychological disorders which fuel attempts to commit suicide. Even if mobbing is not an illness in itself, it can often make the victim very sick.

PHASE 3 The situation becomes a real case of mobbing and the personnel office gets involved. In some cases there is slight resistance because the personnel staff consider mobbing a difficult subject to deal with thus the situation is judged badly and this is called a fundamental error of attribution.

PHASE 4 the victim of mobbing can be moved or subjected to minor tasks, forced to take time off or undergo psychological treatment or even quit and go into early retirement so as to preserve his/her psycho-physical health.

Searching for a solution to mobbing

As far as companies are concerned, it is especially important to constantly monitor mobbing risks, by controlling and mediating conflicts, managing them with any necessary changes or moving people to new places.

For mobbees, the first step to take is often becoming aware of the problem and the fact that it is not their fault, as the context tends to make them think. It is particularly important to refer other resources outside of work and, for preventative means, do not invest your life into your work. It is useful to know that feelings of anger, impotence, guilt and desperation can be very strong and that professional help can be useful even after the situation has changed since the consequences last a long time and can take the form of trauma which affects the victims’ confidence and self-esteem.

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