The first ever study into workplace bullying in Switzerland has revealed that up to eight per cent of Swiss are victims.
The research, carried out by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco), showed that middle managers were the main perpetrators of bullying.
Seco talked to 3,200 people by telephone for the study. Respondents were told they were taking part in a general survey about health and the workplace, and were only asked about bullying towards the end of the interview.
Although only 4.4 per cent of those responding actually described themselves as victims of bullying, the answers from almost eight per cent showed they were in fact suffering systematic bullying in the workplace.
A difficult problem to recognise
Alain Kiener, who is responsible for issues relating to health and the workplace at Seco, says many people don't recognise that they are being bullied at first.
"It is a peculiar form of violence," Kiener told swissinfo. "And many employees don't realise it is happening. They just think perhaps they have done something wrong and they try to improve their work."
Workplace bullying, also called mobbing, is defined as a form of treatment which takes place regularly at least once a week, for at least six months.
"It can be something as simple as being interrupted as soon as you start to speak," said Kiener. "If this were to happen only once or twice it wouldn't be so bad, but if it happens regularly it can have serious consequences, in particular psychologically."
Middle managers the main culprits
The survey found that immediate superiors were the main authors of workplace bullying, with most workers having few problems with their ordinary colleagues.
"I think Swiss middle management has to better trained," said Kiener. "It's not an easy problem, but managers need to be aware that they are obliged to protect the physical and psychological health of their people."
The survey also found that neither men nor women were more likely to be the victims of workplace bullying, and that the phenomenon was equally spread throughout the linguistic regions of Switzerland.
Foreign workers more at risk
However, the survey did reveal that foreign workers are twice as likely to be the victims of bullying as Swiss ones.
"This was a surprise to us," admitted Kiener. "But I think it is explained by the very nature of bullying. People who are in any way different, whether they are fatter, or thinner, or have a different skin colour, are more likely to suffer bullying."
An expensive habit
Seco's research also showed that workplace bullying is expensive, not just in human terms, but in health costs and even legal fees.
"Victims of bullying are three times as likely to be depressed, and are twice as likely to have problems sleeping," explained Kiener.
"In addition," he continued, "if an employee chooses to fight his case, he will have to engage a lawyer, and his company probably will have to do the same, and all this costs money."
Studies in other European countries show similar figures to Switzerland, with an overall average of around nine per cent of workers suffering workplace bullying.
In Scandinavian countries, immediate superiors were somewhat less likely to be the authors of the bullying than in German-speaking countries.
However, analysts believe that the true figure for workplace bullying is likely to be significantly higher than eight or nine per cent, partly because many workers don't at first realise it is happening, and partly because they are too nervous or ashamed to admit to it.
swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes
Seco surveyed 3,200 people by telephone for its study into workplace bullying.
Almost eight per cent were found the be the victims of workplace bullying.
Bullying is one of the main reasons for changing jobs in Switzerland.
Immediate superiors are the main perpetrators of workplace bullying.