Bullying – whether at school or the workplace – can have severe consequences and lead to long-lasting mental health problems, a psychiatrist is warning.

The solution for Anthony Zahra is to develop a culture of empathy, where employees look out for each other just as they would with their own family members.

Bullying is considered by some to be a rite of passage, and children are expected to experience adversity.

A common cultural attitude is that children have to toughen up and learn to deal with it. Meanwhile, in the workplace, some excuse bullying patterns as ‘managerial decisions’.

But bullying should neither be tolerated nor considered ‘part of life’, Dr Zahra told this newspaper.

When a person feels threatened, the body’s natural defence system is activated. It sends messages from the brain to the adrenal glands, causing the release of hormones that physically and cognitively prepare the person for the stressor.

This is a normal and necessary response. However, when this mechanism is stimulated too frequently or too intensely through bullying, the hormones can adversely affect the brain, leading to anxiety and depression.

The most common form of bullying in the workplace is relational, like the marginalisation or social exclusion of a particular colleague.

It usually manifests itself in events such as having a project taken away without justification, being unaware of inside jokes and being criticised instead of provided with constructive feedback, Dr Zahra explained.

The symptoms include a sense of low self-worth and therefore lack of productivity. A bullied employee may also suffer from depression and lack the will to turn up at work.

Dr Zahra spoke to the Times of Malta from his office at Mount Carmel Hospital following a seminar by the Action Group Against Bullying (AGAB). The group was founded by Alexander Libreri, who last year spoke to this newspaper about his own bullying experience.

Mr Libreri wanted to set up a voluntary group that would help victims put a stop to the abuse.

The action group, set up with the support of Dr Catherine Orsten, has attracted a number of professionals who are willing to help human resources departments in developing a protocol against bullying in the workplace.

Meanwhile, AGAB is also planning to provide clinical services on a voluntary basis to adults who experience bullying.

Dr Zahra is aware that bullied people most often do not speak up, as they are afraid of losing their job, while others just transition to another one.

Asked about preventing bullying at work, Dr Zahra said that employees needed to be kinder to each other “in the kinship sense”.

Employees should stand up for each other as they would in a family environment. In other words, he noted, we need to nurture a culture of empathy at the workplace.

Find more information about the action group on the AGAB site, www.agabmalta.org.

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