School bullies were in the spotlight recently. And online bullies have been regularly hogging the headlines.

But there is often little said about workplace bullies, who make life in the office impossible. How bad is it here?

A 2012 survey revealed that about one in four (24 per cent) Singaporean workers say they feel bullied at work.

Workplace bullying is an overlooked problem, says Dr Elizabeth Nair, 65, the principal psychologist at Work & Health Psychologists.

The company provides performance coaching, career counselling and personality profiling services.

Stand up to workplace harassment

Dr Nair says the most common type of workplace bullying here is social bullying.

“It has to do with the idea that work and deadlines are so important that one has to put in extraordinarily long hours.

“It is when the workplace culture and norms have been set like that, that it becomes almost like a trap.”

About 74 per cent of the survey respondents said their colleagues are the “biggest bullies” with bosses making up 62 per cent of the culprits.

Some 21 per cent said they were bullied by clients.

Workers complained of unfair and biased allocation of workload, verbal abuse and personal attacks, ostracising, wrongful accusation, abuse of power and gossip.

Verbal, emotional abuse

“We see more verbal abuse, emotional neglect and making life difficult by causing problems or sabotaging. No physical abuse yet,” says Mr Benedict Lim, chief psychologist at iGrow.

iGrow is a psychological consultancy firm that offers corporate health and wellness services.

Mr Lim has counselled workers and says: “Most of the time, they talk about stress or conflicts at work, their inability to work with co- workers and so on.

“Sometimes, they report use of vulgarities (not always directed at them), sarcastic remarks, making things really difficult by adding obstacles such as making a worker redo something without good justification.”

Who are the bullies and the victims?

Dr Nair says: “The victims are usually younger people, who have just entered the job market.

“Chances are they are probably in the first five to 10 years of their career, when they don’t know what is appropriate and what is not.”

She says the culprits are usually staff in middle management.

The reason for their actions most likely stems from the demands of the office.

Says Dr Nair: “Middle management is assessed on what it produces. The staff are assessed and appraised based on their output and that is dependent on the people under their charge.

“It is almost like they have to pressure the people under them for the work so they do good work.

“Along the way, many forget what is acceptable and ethical.”

Boss calls me ‘chao ah gua’*

I opened my mouth to apologise and the next thing I knew, a plastic folder hit my face.- Senior accounts executive Kenny Leong on his former boss exploding at him in a meeting

*derogatory term to describe an effeminate man

Every morning, he says a little prayer as he prepares for work.

“It is always the same. I just pray that today someone will treat me nice, smile at me or sit with me in the canteen during lunch,” says Mr Kenny Leong in a mix of English and Mandarin.

The 45-year-old senior accounts executive in a public corporation is well aware of the pain of being ostracised and bullied at work.

Mr Leong is agreeing to this interview because he wants to speak up against workplace bullying.

But his brother, who does not want to be named, disapproves.

Says his brother: “Why should he subject himself to more ridicule and unhappiness? We want him to stop working in fact.”

He has reasons to be concerned because his younger brother had been so depressed that he was “even warded in IMH (Institute of Mental Health)” for a month last year.

Mr Leong gives a wry smile, then says: “I keep telling my brother that the situation is much better in my new workplace but he is still worried.”

He has been through several jobs since he graduated with an accounting degree.

He says he was called “woman” or “chao ah gua” (a derogatory term to describe an effeminate man) in most of the places he worked at.

The soft-spoken man is thin and gawky, and his gestures are gentle.

Mr Leong admits that he may have allowed himself to be bullied.

“I hate confrontations or unpleasantness of any kind. As long as I can stomach the insinuating comments or insults, I think it is okay,” he says.

The worst time he had was in a media company that he had worked in for three years before he left last year.

“I had a woman boss who was already, by nature, an intimidating person.

“She wanted everything – month-end figures, financial reports, or even a colleague’s time chit check – fast and accurate.

“But as my speed was not up to her expectation, she’d fly into a rage frequently.”

And when she did, it meant yelling at him in front of everyone in the department.

Mr Leong recalls: “She called me names like ‘chao ah gua’ and ‘bloody tortoise’.”

He shakes his head slowly, then says: “I kept feeling it was my fault because I speak too softly for a man and I am not hunky enough.”

He once made a mistake in a financial report and was publicly humiliated.

“She sent an e-mail to the whole department and said she did not understand why she ‘had to tolerate an idiot like Mr Kenny Leong’,” he says.

She also wrote: “If all men on earth are as useless as him, I think we women are better off as nuns.”

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