Working in an environment where bullying goes on is enough to make many employees think about quitting, a new study suggests.

Canadian researchers writing in the journal Human Relations, published by SAGE, have found that nurses not bullied directly, but who worked in an environment where workplace bullying occurred, felt a stronger urge to quit than those actually being bullied.

These findings on ‘ambient’ bullying have significant implications for organisations, as well as contributing a new statistical approach to the field.

To understand whether bullying in the work environment can have a negative impact on a worker’s desire to remain in their organisation, independent of their personal or direct experiences of workplace bullying, organisational behaviour and human resources experts from the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada surveyed 357 nurses in 41 hospital units.

Their analysis of the survey results showed that targets of bullying were more likely to be thinking of leaving. They also showed a statistically significant link between working somewhere where bullying was going on and a wish to leave.

Said corresponding author, Marjan Houshmand:

“Of particular note is the fact that we could predict turnover intentions as effectively either by whether someone was the direct target of bullying, or by how much an environment was characterised by bullying.”

“This is potentially interesting because we tend to assume that direct, personal experiences should be more influential upon employees than indirect experiences only witnessed or heard about in a second-hand fashion. Yet our study identifies a case where direct and indirect experiences have a similarly strong relationship to turnover intentions.”

The authors theorise that although individuals may experience moral indignation at others being bullied, it is perceived as being even more unfair when others are bullied and they are not. The work contributes to a growing area of human relations study, which looks at how third party experiences affect individuals within organisations.