Social media outlets have been awash with sympathy for young Tennessee lad Keaton Jones, after a selfie-video he made decrying his school bullies went viral. In the clip, a visibly distressed Jones – who had suffered a number of hurtful pranks – hit out at his assailants for mocking his appearance and asked them, out of stunned curiosity, what they got out of bullying. A number of celebrities, including Katy Perry and Star Wars legend Mark Hamill, weighed in with supportive comments online, putting bullying at the top of the news agenda.

However, another recent piece of news about the problem – with implications for the workplace – has not garnered nearly as much attention. In mid-November, it emerged that a University of Copenhagen study had suggested that workplace bullying dramatically increases the sufferer’s chances of developing Type-2 diabetes.

According to the authors, being bullied is “a severe social stressor that may activate the stress response and lead to a range of downstream biological processes that may contribute towards the risk of diabetes”. Bodily changes triggered by stress hormones were cited as one, potential cause, while others included comfort-eating binges stemming from the sufferer’s attempts to seek a refuge from the damaging emotional impacts of bullying.

“As both bullying and violence, or threats of violence, are common in the workplace,” the authors wrote, “we suggest that prevention policies should be investigated as a possible means to reduce this risk.” What kind of action should leaders take if they become aware of bullying in their workplace – and, just as importantly, how can leaders ensure that they themselves are not converting the pressure they’re under into bullying?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Whenever people get together in social groups, the opportunities for the kind of power games that produce bullying immediately present themselves. Depending upon the context, this could extend into the sort of violence that leads people to withdraw and to experience social isolation. But the overarching rule of work is that the workplace must be hallowed ground, as it were: a safe place to go, and in which to be.”

Cooper notes: “I often refer to the study that Google published last year, in which it identified social sensitivity as the foundation of a well-managed workplace. In organisations where people are socially sensitive, and where there are high levels of trust, bullying will not manifest itself. This means that you don’t reward any type of behaviour whereby an individual undermines a colleague, or goes behind a colleague’s back – or, indeed, anything significantly more aggressive.”

She adds: “Managers have a really difficult job here. Often, they will be called upon to object to certain types of behaviour, with the risk that they will be shunned to the fringes because they don’t condone what the group has determined to be the norm. On that basis, out of pure convenience, a manager may be tempted to avoid that kind of alienation by siding with the group, rather than the individual. But that’s where John Adair’s ‘Three Circles’ model of leadership comes into play. He discerned an overlap between the needs of the TEAM, the TASK and the INDIVIDUAL: if you’re not looking after the individual, then ultimately, the work of the group will suffer.

“That’s why I find the Google study so interesting and persuasive. In teams where there are high levels of trust, and people are encouraged to be kind to each other, performance and productivity improve. So the business case for social sensitivity is really very strong.”

For further thoughts on how to build trust, check out these learning resources from the Institute