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From awareness to action: Addressing workplace bullying and institutional betrayal

June 13, 2024
By Linda Crockett and Debanjan Borthakur

Credit: Getty Images/mediaphotos

Workplace bullying can be defined as repeated and unreasonable actions directed towards an employee or group of employees, creating a hostile work environment, and undermining their dignity, well-being, and ability to perform their work effectively. These actions may include verbal abuse, intimidation, humiliation, sabotage of work, or other forms of mistreatment.

Below we discuss some key concepts related to workplace bullying.

Jennifer J. Freyd, a prominent researcher in the field, defined institutional betrayal as “a wrong perpetrated by an institution upon an individual dependent on that institution.” This betrayal can take several forms, including negligence, punishing victims and whistleblowers, cover-ups, failures to respond adequately, and normalizing abusive situations within the organization.

Hypervigilance refers to a state of heightened awareness, alertness, and sensitivity to potential threats or danger, often characterized by an exaggerated or persistent perception of being under threat, even in situations where no real danger exists.

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress or frustration. It can lead to feelings of detachment, cynicism, and a diminished sense of accomplishment. Burnout often occurs in individuals who work in demanding or high-pressure environments, such as healthcare, education, or corporate sectors.

Hypervigilance and burnout are interconnected through their shared association with chronic stress. Hypervigilance may precede or coexist with burnout, stemming from prolonged exposure to stressors. Both states may cyclically exacerbate one another.

Addressing adult bullying in the workplace and its associated hypervigilance and burnout requires comprehensive interventions at the individual, interpersonal, organizational, and systemic levels. Solutions should promote a culture of respect, accountability, and support in the workplace while addressing institutional betrayal and power imbalances.

Eight steps to target workplace bullying

  1. Raise awareness: Educate employees and leaders about the harmful effects of workplace bullying, institutional betrayal, and burnout. Encourage open dialogue and transparency about these issues to promote understanding and empathy. The priority is prevention and early, appropriate intervention.


  1. Implement policies and procedures: Establish clear policies and procedures for addressing adult bullying, including mechanisms for reporting incidents, conducting trauma-informed investigations, and supporting targeted individuals. Creating a culture of accountability requires consistent and fair policy enforcement.


  1. Training and education: Offer trauma-informed programs for employees, students, and all levels of leadership on prevention, intervention, repair, and recovery options for all psychological hazards. Additional training, such as leading with emotional intelligence, trauma-informed communication skills, and preventing burnout, is also valuable. Empower leaders and employees with the knowledge and skills to recognize and address bullying behavior effectively.


  1. Foster supportive work environments: Create a workplace culture that values respect, inclusivity, and empathy, thereby reducing the risk of psychological hazards and the related coping mechanism of hypervigilance and resulting burnout. Encourage collaboration, teamwork, and mutual support among employees to foster a sense of belonging and community.


  1. Empower employees: Empower employees to speak up against bullying and institutional betrayal by providing avenues for anonymous reporting, whistleblower protections, and access to confidential support resources to identify early symptoms, offer qualified interventions, and reduce the risk of harm. Encourage a culture of advocacy and solidarity among employees.


  1. Hold those who cause harm accountable: Hold those who harm others accountable for their actions through disciplinary measures, such as mandatory specialized trauma-informed counseling, and expect them to follow the therapist’s customized recommendations to address burnout. Send a clear message that bullying behavior will not be tolerated and will have consequences.


  1. Address power imbalances: Promote diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to address systemic power imbalances within the organization. This will reduce the risk of psychological harm and the resulting impacts and costs. Provide opportunities for employees to participate in decision-making processes and voice their concerns about issues in the workplace or academic environment.


  1. Support those targeted: Provide trauma-informed, qualified support services for those impacted by psychological hazards. Include trauma-informed counseling, access to legal guidance, and accommodations as needed. Ensure those targeted feel heard, validated, and supported throughout each step taken within the workplace or academic systems.


Addressing the issue of workplace bullying is crucial for safeguarding the mental and emotional well-being of individuals. Workplace bullying undermines an individual’s dignity and ability to perform effectively, leading to heightened alertness and burnout symptoms. The added layer of institutional betrayal exacerbates these issues, eroding trust and compounding the psychological and physiological stress experienced by the victims.

Preventive measures are essential to combat these issues at multiple levels. Raising awareness about the harmful effects of bullying and institutional betrayal is the first step toward creating a supportive and respectful work environment. Implementing clear policies and procedures, providing trauma-informed training and education, and fostering a culture of inclusivity and empathy are critical components in this endeavour. Empowering individuals to recognize and respond to bullying, supporting those targeted through trauma-informed services, and holding perpetrators accountable are fundamental to promoting psychological safety. Nothing changes without accountability. Addressing power imbalances within organizations and advocating for systemic change further reinforces these efforts.

By enacting meaningful changes and prioritizing the well-being of all employees, organizations can create healthier, safer, and more supportive environments. This holistic approach not only protects individuals from the detrimental effects of bullying and institutional betrayal but also fosters a culture of respect, accountability, and support, essential for the overall health of any workplace or academic institution.

Linda Crockett, MSW, RSW, SEP, CPPA, is founder of the Canadian Institute of Workplace Bullying Resources, and a member of the Academic Parity Movement.

Debanjan Borthakur, MS, is a member of the Academic Parity Movement.


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