We as a culture are up in arms over bullying. We are permanently outraged about harassment. It’s as though nothing worse can happen to a human being.
And yet, it turns out that there is something worse than bullying. It is… ostracism.
Strangely enough, being ignored is worse than being abused. Being ignored produces more feelings of worthlessness than does harassment.
Since people who are being bullied often tell themselves that they want nothing more than to be left alone, the point is less than self-evident.
Why might this be so?
Perhaps some attention, of any kind is better than no attention. The attention might be unwanted, but, apparently, for some people in some situations, some attention is better than none.
This might tell us why people put up with bullying and abuse. If they believe that the alternative is worse, they might be willing to accept a certain amount of the wrong kind of attention. At least, when you are bullied, you know that other people know you exist. Their intentions might be perfectly malevolent, but being involved is apparently better than being ignored.
Moreover, when you are being bullied, you are part of an ongoing drama. You are engaged in what I would call the lowest level of social interaction. Still, this is apparently better than not being engaged in any social interaction at all.
Naturally, this all needs a qualification. People who are stalked are often cut off from their normal social interactions. A stalker might make his victim feel like she cannot even spend time with friends or family, because they they will be targeted too. In some cases, the presence or the threat of the stalker makes friends abandon a victim of stalking. In those cases, the pain of the abuse is compounded by the sense of being ostracized.
The research does not consider such extreme cases. It comes to us from controlled workplace environments where minimal standards of decorum are observed. And, it involves adults, not children. It examines and attempts to quantify the different reactions to bullying and ostracism in the office.
The Daily Mail reports on the research:
Being ignored at work has been found to be worse for a person’s health than people who are harassed or bullied.
Researchers found that while most consider ostracism less harmful than bullying, feeling excluded is significantly more likely to lead job dissatisfaction, quitting and health problems.
‘We've been taught that ignoring someone is socially preferable - if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all,’ said University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business Professor Sandra Robinson, who co-authored the study.
‘But ostracism actually leads people to feel more helpless, like they're not worthy of any attention at all.’
How did the researchers measure the difference?
Additional surveys revealed people who claimed to have experienced ostracism were significantly more likely to report a degraded sense of workplace belonging and commitment, a stronger intention to quit their job, and a larger proportion of health problems.
How was the study conducted?
The researchers also took an employment survey, taken by a Canadian university, which included feedback on feelings of workplace isolation and harassment and compared it to turnover rates three years after the survey was conducted.
This found that people who reported feeling ostracized were significantly more likely to have quit.
‘There is a tremendous effort underway to counter bullying in workplaces and schools, which is definitely important. But abuse is not always obvious,’ continued Robinson.