Bullying Among Washington Library Staff

Safety & Health Assessment & Research for Prevention (SHARP) — Research for Safe Work


In a study supported by the Washington Library Association (WLA) and the Interest Group for Library Unions (IGLU), SHARP researchers found that experiencing bullying as well as witnessing bullying are associated with poor sleep quality and sleep adequacy. While most respondents did not report being targets of bullying, a small percentage did report experiencing bullying (6% of respondents). When these respondents reported bullying on a weekly or daily basis, disrupted sleep was associated as an important health-related outcome.


Workplace bullying, like school bullying, is the behavior of individuals or groups that includes repeated aggressive acts against a co-worker or subordinate that occur over a long time period (e.g. 6 months) (Einarsen et al., 2003). Workplace bullying can include behaviors such as verbal, psychological, or physical abuse. Bullying is different from incivility. Whereas incivility may involve a single act or infrequent acts, bullying involves repeated acts against the target, creating an on-going pattern of behavior over time.

Workplace bullying often involves an abuse or misuse of power. Bullying behavior creates feelings of defenselessness and injustice in the target and undermines an individual's right to dignity at work. This type of aggression is quite difficult to address because workplace bullies often act overtly or covertly, but within the established rules and policies of their organizations. Examples of direct actions are accusations, verbal abuse and public humiliation. Indirect acts of aggression are withholding information needed to perform at work, malicious gossiping, and social isolation. Few organizations have policies that specifically address bullying at work.

The American Medical Association has identified school bullying as a public health problem (Debarbieux, 2001) and it appears recognition is growing that it is a serious adult level workplace problem as well. There are 18 state legislatures in the U.S. with anti-workplace bullying bills recently in committee review. While to date none of these bills has been enacted into law, they provide evidence that there is growing awareness of the need to protect employees from the harmful effects of mistreatment in the workplace. Current protections for employees exist under the OSH Act Section 5a. The OSH regulations require employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace for all employees free from known workplace hazards - known as the "general duty" clause. Work-related mental injury and illness are covered under the act, however it is difficult to enforce for bullying.

Research has documented the extent that bullying occurs in the workplace. A United States prevalence study found 25% of respondents reported being bullied at work (Lutgen-Sandvik, Tracy, & Alberts, 2007). In a survey of public sector employees, researchers found 71% reported experiencing workplace incivility with 6% reporting experiencing such behavior many times - which would constitute bullying (Cortina, Magley, Williams & Langhout, 2001). Finally, in the most rigorous prevalence study to date of U.S. workers, 41.4% of respondents reported experiencing psychological aggression at work in the past year representing 47 million U.S. workers (Schat, Frone & Kelloway, 2006). Further, 13%, or nearly 15 million workers, reported experiencing psychological aggression on a weekly basis.

Bullying and Sleep

In recent research, Niedhammer et al. (2009) found that bullying at work was associated with sleep disturbances, specifically with sleep quality, difficulty falling asleep and difficulty returning to sleep after waking in the middle of the night. This initial evidence points to the need for further research on the relationship between workplace bullying and sleep disturbances. We call attention to the importance of studying sleep for the following reasons. First, there is a strong economic impact of sleep disruption. A study conducted among French population estimated the direct costs of disrupted sleep to be more than $2 billion (Leger, Levy, & Paillard, 1999). Second, the prevalence of sleep problems is high and is associated with a number of health problems ranging from the common cold to post partum depression and cardiovascular disease, creating a serious public health issue (Morin, 1993). Finally, sleep is essential for a person's health and wellbeing. For instance, it has been shown that sleep quality may help employees to recover from work strain. Following this line of prior research on sleep, we hypothesized that experiencing workplace bullying is positively related to poor sleep quality and sleep adequacy. We also hypothesized that witnessing workplace bullying is positively related to poor sleep quality and sleep adequacy.


Job Strain

Job strain was assessed with an abbreviated version of the Job Content Questionnaire (Karasek, 1979). We used three subscales used to compute job strain). We used 5 items to assess psychological job demand (conflicting job demands, job requires working hard, asked to do excessive amount of work, don't have enough time, and job requires working fast), 3 items to assess decision authority (a lot of decisions on my own, little freedom to decide, and a lot of say about what happens on job), and 5 items to assess skill discretion (job requires learning new things, job involves repetitive work, job allows for creativity, job requires a high level of skill, and job involves a variety of different things).

Exposure to bullying

The 22-item Negative Acts Questionnaire (NAQ-R) measured exposure to bullying within the last 6 months, with the response options: "Never," "Now and then," "Monthly," "Weekly'' and "Daily". After answering the NAQ-R, respondents read a definition of bullying. Witnessing bullying was assessed with the item, "Have you witnessed a coworker being a target of workplace bullying based on the above definition?" The 1-5 response options were, "No," "Yes, but only rarely," to "Yes, almost daily." Higher scores indicate increased exposure to bullying and to witnessing bullying.


Sleep quality was assessed with three items on a 4 point response scale of "4 or more times a week" to "never." A sample item is, "During the past 4 weeks, how often could you not get to sleep within 30 minutes? Sleep adequacy was assessed with the following item: "How often during the past 4 weeks did you get enough sleep to feel rested upon waking up?" Response options ranged from never to very often. Higher scores indicate better sleep quality and sleep adequacy.

Participant characteristics

The demographic variables assessed included gender, age educational level, income, race/ethnicity, and relationship status.


Survey measures and items were selected and tested with a library staff focus group for understanding, relevance, and time to complete the survey. Recruitment letters with a Survey Monkey link were sent to listserv members provided by Washington library Association. Study participants (Washington library staff) were asked to voluntarily complete the confidential online surveys during their off-work time. The survey took approximately 30-40 minutes to complete.


In 2010, 304 library staff responded to a self-administered questionnaire. Table 1 presents the basic demographic characteristics of the study participants. Eighty employees were excluded from the analysis because they did not complete the bullying measure items. Thus, the study was based on 224 respondents with a mean age in the range of 41-50 years. A description of the study sample is shown in Table 1.

Table 2 presents the study variables means, standard deviations, and bivariate correlations. Experiencing bullying and witnessing bullying were strongly associated with sleep quality and sleep adequacy at the p<.001 level of significance. In addition bullying frequency and bullying intensity were strongly associated with the sleep disturbance variables at the p<.001 level of significance.

In our hierarchical regression analyses, we controlled for gender, age, education, and income in step one, job strain in step two, and bullying, and witnessing bullying in step three. Experiencing workplace bullying and witnessing bullying were both significantly associated with poor sleep quality and poor sleep adequacy. When employees are targets of bullying behaviors, or observe bullying at work they are also likely to experience sleep disturbances. Moreover, as targets of bullying experience more frequent or more types of negative acts directed at them, they may also experience increasing levels of sleep disturbances.


Our findings are in alignment with previous studies on workplace bullying and sleep disruption. Erickson et al., found that experiencing threats and violence at work predicted poor sleep quality in nurse's aides after controlling for age, gender, and occupational factors. In another study, Vartia et al. reported that bullied employees used more sleep aids and sedatives than employees who were not bullied. The researchers also reported that observers of bullying at work used more sleep aids and sedatives than those who were not bullied.

In conclusion, our study highlights the strong association between experiencing and observing bullying at work and sleep disruption. Workplaces that tolerate bullying may be fostering an environment that is detrimental to workers. In organizations, a lack of preparedness and control over handling bullying may have an increased negative effect on individual health outcomes such as sleep. Organizational efforts toward bullying prevention such as strong policies, education, and early intervention are recommended.

Table 1
Library Staff Participants' Basic Demographic Characteristics
Demographic Frequency Percent
Gender (N=216)
Female 183 84.7.
Male 33 15.3.
Age (N = 218)
18-30 20 9.2.
31-40 31 14.2.
41-50 56 25.7.
51-60 89 40.8.
61+ 22 10.1.
(Education N=219)
High School 4 1.8.
1-2 years College 32 14.6.
3-4 years College 48 21.9.
5-6 years College 86 39.3.
7+ years College 49 22.4.
Income (N = 210)
$10,000 - 19,999 8 3.9.
20,000 - 39,999 37 17.6.
40,000 - 59,999 46 21.8.
60,000 - 79,999 56 26.7.
80,000 - 99,999 30 14.3.
100,000+ 33 15.7.
Ethnicity (N = 222)
American Indian/Alaskan Native 4 1.8.
Asian American 9 4.0.
Black/African American 3 1.3.
Hispanic or Latino/Latina 6 2.8.
Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander 3 1.3.
White 197 87.9.
Relationship Status (N = 218)
Married or Living as Married 161 73.9.
Never Married 27 12.4.
Widowed 5 2.3.
Divorced or Separated 25 11.5.

Table 2
Means, Standard Deviations, and Intercorrelations Among Study Variables
Variables M SD 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Gender 1.15 .36                  
Age 3.28 1.12 .04                
Education 8.83 1.92 .11 -.10              
Income 6.67 2.38 .09 .23 .32            
Job strain 2.32 .40 -.15 -.15 -.24 -.34 (.80)        
Bullying 1.62 .61 -.10 -.10 -.02 -.16 .62 (.94)      
Witnessing bullying 2.05 1.24 -.07 -.02 .00 -.06 .34 .61      
Sleep quality 2.40 .72 .03 .05 .14 .09 -.36 -.41 -.29 (.67)  
Sleep adequacy 3.01 1.07 .04 .14 -.03 .09 -.33 -.36 -.31 .56  

Note. Internal reliability coefficients (alphas) appear in parentheses along the main diagonal. Correlations greater than .14 are significant at the p < .05 level and those greater than .19 are significant at the p < .01 level, two-tailed.

N = 210-224 participants.


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