In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the agency charged with assuring ‘safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.’

OSHA was officially created in 1971 and since then has implemented a range of health and safety programs. By 1978 the agency had created the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program, aimed at educating workers in relation to risks and hazards to reduce the number of workplace accidents and illness.  

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, OSHA has since issued numerous regulations for standards in relation to workplace safety, including chemical exposure,the use of personal protective equipment and safety procedures. But between 2001 and 2011, OSHA introduced only four new health and safety standards, and is yet to take steps to address workers’ welfare in relation to bullying and stress.

As a result, there are no official statistics for the amount of people that suffer emotional harm or stress as a result of workplace bullying, as there is no way for them to seek a legal resolution. The only legal recourse for these people would be if the bullying was classed as ‘unlawful harassment,’ which is a form illegal discrimination against someone with a ‘protected status’, or if it results in a physical injury or violence.  

In England however, great strides have been made towards legislating against harassment and bullying in the workplace by the

Health and Safety Executive (HSE).The HSE is the UK’s equivalent to the OSHA, and are a national, independent organisation that acts in the public interest to reduce work-related accidents, injuries and illnesses. They have powers to inspect and prosecute any employer they find failing to uphold sufficient health and safety and providing adequate protection for their workers.

The HSE have publishedadvice for organisations and managers about how best to ensure bullying doesn’t become a problem in the workplace, as well as advice for workers who may be suffering from bullying and/or stress as a result.

As an employer in England, you would be expected to:

  • Plan and implement a bullying and harassment policy that explains your approach to tackling bullying in the workplace, what is classed as unacceptable behaviour, what support you’d offer to victims and the consequences for the perpetrators.
  • Promote a culture where bullying and harassment is not tolerated, but accept that it could happen and ensure that everyone is aware of the policy.
  • Be aware of the organisational factors that could contribute to bullying. Factors such as a perceived imbalance of power, competition and a lack of diversity training can be just a few of the things that result in bullying or harassment, and as such it is the organisation’s responsibility to identify these factors and plan prevention strategies to negate them.

Similarly to the US, bullying is not illegal and there is no legal definition, but the HSE’s guidance has a definition of workplace bullying that includes ignoring or excluding someone, spreading malicious rumours and giving someone unachievable tasks.

In England, it is widely accepted that bullying or harassment in the workplace can have an extremely negative effect on the victim and everyone involved, and as such the HSE also provide guidance for any one on the receiving end. The process involves consulting the organisation’s anti-bullying policy – this should give the victim clear steps to take to resolve the problem, usually starting with an informal discussion with a manager to express your concerns.

Not all organisations will have one, but it could be outlined in an employee handbook or contract, and if there isn’t one at all, the HSE advises you speak to someone you trust who can help resolve the problem informally, through discussion.

If this isn’t effective, mediation by a third party is suggested as an option, and if this still doesn’t resolve the situation, employees are advised to follow a formal complaints procedure.

The final step is taking legal action, but this will be against your employer and not the bully, for not resolving the situation. The employee will need to seek professional legal advice and collate evidence of the harassment and lack of support from the employer.

There have long been calls for the U.S. to legislate against bullying in the workplace by numerous organisations, and although the UK have still not made it illegal, they have ensured that anyone suffering has recourse to resolve the situation.