Workplace cyberbullying is a nasty form of bullying that can stalk you from the hospital to home via the phone in your pocket. Researcher Natalia D’Souza looked at cyberbullying in healthcare and says a screenshot of an abusive social media post is unfortunately not that much help.

Natalia D’Souza

It’s not uncommon for people to say that “the good thing” about cyberbullying is that there is usually digital evidence left behind in the form of a text, email or social media post.

People agree that, yes, cyberbullying is an insidious problem that can occur anonymously, beyond the workplace (or beyond work hours for that matter) often via a public platform for nearly all to see, share or save… but “at least you have proof of it!” (See definition of cyberbullying below.)

It is hard to argue with the logic behind this sentiment, especially since traditional forms of workplace bullying are often underreported and difficult to investigate. After all, if you have proof of the bullying, doesn’t that make it easier for those targeted to report this behaviour? Likewise, wouldn’t it make it easier for organisations to manage these reports of bullying?

In theory, yes. For instance, previous research has indicated bullying targets may benefit from the digital trail left behind by their cyberbullying or harassment when reporting the behaviours or seeking redress. However, this is based on several assumptions that may not necessarily hold true across all workplaces, particularly within healthcare.

Digital ‘trail’ alone is not the answer

Take the example of ‘Sarah’ a recent nurse graduate who has been at her workplace for less than a year, and is experiencing both traditional and cyber forms of bullying – a combination that can often occur.

The first assumption is that having evidence of cyberbullying behaviours equates to having evidence of harm. However ‘saving’ a hostile or reprimanding email from Sarah’s manager alone does not fully capture the wider repeated and ongoing humiliation that Sarah may be experiencing in her workplace. Neither does it capture the unreasonable demands that may be placed on her as a result of increased public demand for health services in the midst of staff and resource shortages.

Similarly, a screenshot of an abusive Facebook post against Sarah by a disgruntled client, or their relative, is unlikely to capture her anxiety about how many people may see the post and what this may mean for her professional career. In short: having evidence alone does not tell us the full story.

Beyond this, there is the assumption that there are clear organisational policies and reporting channels in place for forms of cyberbullying. While many healthcare organisations have policies against traditional forms of workplace bullying and harassment – and even guidelines around employee use of social media – workplace cyberbullying is a relatively new issue for organisations to deal with and, understandably, is not often part of their current policy. This is particularly true of cyberbullying from external sources; such as patients, clients and their relatives, and even students.

Unfortunately, the lack of clear organisational policies and procedures relating to workplace cyberbullying may unintentionally signal to staff that this is not an organisational concern.

However, even if Sarah has gathered sufficient evidence, and there is a clear reporting system in place, she may still face a number of barriers to reporting that can frequently occur in healthcare organisations. For instance, it is not unknown in large public sector organisations, like hospitals, for profession-based and gender-based power dynamics to interact with social norms against reporting bullying; with the result that bullying targets are silenced and a culture of conflict avoidance is created.

Consequently, Sarah may be worried about retribution from the accused perpetrator or bully – in this case, her manager – as well as potentially damaging her career progress as a new entrant into the workforce. She may also be embarrassed by the stigma often associated with adult bullying and may lack faith that her situation will change even if she did report the incidents. Sarah may even be concerned about being labelled a “whistle blower” and experiencing ostracism from her colleagues. More importantly, while children and adolescents often have substantial education around cyberbullying and other forms of digital harm, there have been little efforts thus far at raising awareness among adults, especially in the workplace. So Sarah may fail to identify her experience as ‘cyberbullying’ in the first instance.

Finally, even if Sarah is able to overcome the many barriers to reporting, her workplace – like many others – may be currently ill-prepared to manage workplace cyberbullying, particularly those from sources outside the organisation. For instance, organisations have little control over the viewing and spread of public posts. Similarly, there is little defence against anonymous postings, particularly if the perpetrators are savvy enough to block or re-route their IP address.

All in all, while no doubt beneficial, an over-emphasis on capturing digital evidence – particularly in the absence of well-established organisational, industry and national-level education, policies and procedures – puts the onus on targets to manage their own cyberbullying, which in itself can act as yet another barrier to reporting.

At least for now, the feature of digital evidence remains a double-edged sword, more likely to hurt than help targets of cyberbullying like Sarah.

Natalia D’Souza is a PhD candidate and researcher at Massey University, Albany whose PhD research has included looking at cyberbullying in the health sector.



Cyberbullying involves unwanted aggressive behaviours that may harm, threaten, demoralise or embarrass the person on the receiving end. This can occur through a range of electronic media including text and instant messages, emails, social media, blogs and public web forums. Workplace cyberbullying can occur outside of the workplace and after hours.

Bullying Resources


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