June 29, 2002

Germans get to grips with the bully at work

>From Allan Hall in Berlin

BULLYING at work is more widespread in Germany than any other European country, according to a report by the country’s Ministry of Labour.

Several suicides have been attributed to the problem, which Germans call"mobbing" - a term coined in the 1960s by the late Heinz Leymann in reference to schoolchildren. Most of the victims of workplace bullying are women and the worst bullies are men. It is found in all sectors, factories as well as offices.

The problem costs the state £100 million a year in medical costs, as well as lost working days. The Mobbing Report, a survey of 4,400 workers, estimated that 800,000 people were suffering "intolerable" abuse every day and that 1.5 million workers suffered sickness caused by bullying. The Government is considering legislating to tackle the problem.

While bullying at work is a problem in several European countries, experts are divided about the reasons for its prevalence in Germany. In a regulated, formal society, many office newcomers believed that they were subject to mobbing because they were seen as a threat to senior staff. Others attributed it to anxiety about the threat posed by an unemployment rate of 10 per cent.

Big industrial unions such as IG Metall have departments dealing solely with workplace bullying. Courts have begun making large payouts to people who have complained of systematic harassment.

This year the world’s first clinic to treat psychologically damaged victims of workplace bullying opened in Germany. Patients can receive treatment free from the state or through private insurance policies.

At the Berus Clinic in Saarbrücken, 200 patients are under treatment for "reactive depression through workplace conflict". One in four is an in-patient: the rest receive therapy and counselling.

Thirty doctors are employed at the clinic. Classes cover conflict management and how to deal with hostility. Therapy includes role-play sessions where patients take the part of victim or bully.

The patients include typists, an electrician, a car salesman, computer specialists and a mobile telephone salesman. "The patients learn how to cope and stand up for themselves," said the director, Joseph Schwickerath, a psychologist.

In certain sectors the problem was particularly prevalent, he said. "Civil servants, for example, are seven times more likely to report workplace impropriety than other office types. These bullies have a lot to lose in their jobs-for-life mindset if they feel threatened by newcomers."

Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers