The study began after a friend who worked in a bank told her she was being bullied by a manager. Ms Adams, an author and broadcaster, collected enough evidence from first-person accounts to build up a picture of 50 to 60 people affected during a period of 4 1/2 years in companies.
Neither management nor union took the matter seriously, but she did. She produced two programmes for Radio 4 - 'An Abuse of Power' and 'Whose Fault Is It Anyway?' - and touched a nerve, bringing in hundreds of letters.
In her book Bullying at Work she says: 'The number of letters showed that this was a very common problem . . . Companies are more stretched now, managers are under ever more pressure to perform, and they exert the pressure downwards. But mere bossiness turns to bullying when professional abrasiveness becomes tainted with an element of personal vindictiveness.'
Cary Cooper, professor of psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, said: 'Hierarchies and middle management are going, organisations are becoming flatter . . . Therefore there are fewer people doing more work. In these conditions, stress levels will be projected on to others, and subordinates are often safe targets.'
No sector is exempt. Banks, public and private-sector companies, churches and schools are all potential breeding-grounds for what Ms Adams describes as the 'vicious, malicious act of undermining people, often professional, competent people, who are inexplicably reduced to the state of frightened children' - through intimidation, daily verbal abuse and regular public humiliation. Last week, the Manufacturing Science Finance union launched a campaign aimed at demonstrating how the problem was on the rise.
In a forthcoming television programme, one alleged victim, John Walford, tells his story. Mr Walford was formerly a successful manager with Ford in Warley, Essex, on pounds 55,000 a year. His life changed in June 1992 when his department was reorganised and new senior managers arrived from the United States.
He said his staff were removed and his financial authority was cut from pounds 1m to pounds 1,000. By August, serious allegations had been made about him: that he fraudulently inflated his expenses claims and that he played golf when he should have been working.
Mr Walford said his immediate superiors created a climate of uncertainty about his position. He said he lost his appetite, suffered from insomnia and, eventually, depression - but felt unable to discuss it with his wife, Clare. He became so withdrawn that she began to suspect him of having an affair.
He took the matter to personnel, and initially the disciplinary proceedings against him were dropped - but then reinstituted. He began to feel, he says, quite murderous, which according to Neil Crawford, a psychotherapist, is common.
By December he could bear it no longer and walked out, taking pounds 18,000 as a voluntary redundancy payment. He has since taken his case to an industrial tribunal, spending thousands to show that he was bullied out of his job. Ford settled the case out of court and has increased the redundancy package to pounds 32,500, but refuses to comment on the case. Mr Walford says he will feel victorious when he finds another job.
Bullying clearly affects people's health and as a consequence affects the health of a company. About 360 million working days a year are lost through illness and the Manchester research shows that much of this can be attributed to stress-related disorders.
Bullying is the most potent source of stress that causes people to take time off. The CBI puts the cost of stress-related absenteeism at pounds 1.3bn a year, and Professor Cooper said stress problems could cost businesses from 5 per cent to 10 per cent of their profits.
Despite this, companies in Britain largely deny or ignore the existence of bullying. Of the companies in the FT-SE 100 contacted by the programme, only 5 per cent mentioned bullying in the anti-harassment policies that nearly all had.
Despite the serious effects of bullying, there had been little research, Professor Cooper said. He has studied stress for years and believes bullying is one of the biggest contributory factors. His researchers have talked to thousands of people in 70 occupational areas and believe bullying accounts for a third to half of all stress-related illness. The researchers contacted the personnel directors of more than half of Britain's top 100 companies and found that 25 per cent said bullying was not a problem.
The University of Staffordshire carried out a survey of more than 1,100 people, most under 40, of whom 80 per cent had worked for at least five years. Of these, 53 per cent said they had been victims of bullying and 78 per cent said they had witnessed it. Of those who had left jobs, 27 per cent said bullying had played a part in their decision.
Sweden is at the forefront of investigation into bullying at work. Heinz Leymann, a psychologist, said the problem was widespread in Scandinavia, and he has set up a clinic for extreme cases.
In Britain, victims are usually at a loss about where to turn for help. Personnel Performance Consultants, a company offering a 24-hour line for employees of subscriber organisations, aims to encourage victims of bullying to go back to managers and say: 'I am not prepared to tolerate this behaviour.'
But Ms Adams said this was difficult. 'Employees usually do not win. They usually get sacked. It's depressing. Psychologists say victims should fight because it is good for their self-esteem, but how good is it if you get sacked? This is why the organisation should take on the responsibility. And this is something I hope will result from the forthcoming programme.'
She added that David Hunt, the Secretary of State for Employment, had told her the Government was concerned but did not intend to introduce legislation, because it did not wish to add to the statutory burden on the private sector.
'Bullying at Work' is published by Virago.
The TV programme is to be broadcast on 'The Business', BBC2 on Thursday
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