Cary Cooper: I had to resign from bullying helpline, confidentiality was breached

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The Independent Online

Years ago, a colleague and I from Manchester University conducted a study into bullying in the workplace, which found that it damaged people's health, mental wellbeing, and productivity and also meant they took more sick days. I could see that people needed a place to go when they couldn't go to their employers in case it was held against them.

So when the chief executive of the National Bullying Helpline asked me if I would be a patron, I said I would. The reason I resigned is that what the chief executive did, in my view, breaches the helpline's confidentiality. Although individuals were not named, their employer was, and you just can't do that. If you name the employer, they may be able to find out who this person is and they could then lose their job. It undermines the whole premise of what a confidential advisory helpline is supposed to do.

It may have been a publicity stunt – I don't know what her motives are. I called her on Sunday night to say that I was going to resign. She said "Could you sleep on it?" but I had already made up my mind by then. She didn't explain why she did it. In a way, I think she thought that the employers shouldn't get away with it, but the helpline is not supposed to be an anti-bullying campaign organisation. That is not what it advertises itself to be, so it has gone beyond its remit.

The issue of bullying in the workplace is very important, particularly during times of recession and downturn, because there are fewer people doing more work, for managers who are under more stress than ever before. A "robust" management style is more likely to occur in a recession than at any other time. A manager's style changes if they feel overloaded and stressed themselves, and can sometimes border on bullying.

During a recession people also feel insecure in their jobs, so if they are being bullied they are worried to death about letting anybody know about it, especially their organisation's human resources department. They need to be able to get legal and other advice, and that's what a helpline should provide.

When you have a lot of change, job insecurity and too few people – because you are keeping your labour costs down – you're left with a breeding ground for a more abusive management style.

But people are also much more sensitive today, and can sometimes use bullying just to get at a manager. That is a reverse form of bullying: a subordinate telling a manager "You are bullying me" and using it as a means of bullying their boss into not managing them so robustly. Whatever form bullying takes, it damages an individual's self-esteem, self-confidence, their health and their ability to perform effectively in the workplace. We should not, as a society, tolerate this behaviour.

The writer is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School and is an expert in the field of workplace stress