Workplace bullying. A real escalating modern phenomenon or the blurring of lines between high realistic expectations of a demanding boss in a high-pressured environment and feeling picked on?

Are offices, factories, public sector and charitable organisations really packed with nasty, demeaning, aggressive individuals intent on humiliating and destroying colleagues than ever, or are feelings, perceptions and interpretation swamping fact?

An acquaintance said to me recently when chatting about workplace bullying: “Expecting someone to do their job, meet agreed deadlines with work of an acceptable standard is not bullying.”

Nor is chasing work past its deadline. That’s the person doing the chasing being effective in her or his job, not bullying the other.

Bullying is horrible, unacceptable and cruel. But throwing accusations around so cavalierly to describe actions of tough boss devalues the real thing that crushes people, their confidence and their futures leaving them broken.

Nearly 18 million working days a year are lost to stress, anxiety and depression with bullying a factor.

A recent study found that 75% of employees had reported that they had either been a target of, or have witnessed, bullying at work.

Another survey of 2,000 UK based employees on their experiences at work to date found that 23% of the British workforce has been bullied at work, 25% have been made to feel left out by colleagues, and 12% admitted to struggling to make friends where they worked.

This is an accusation epidemic. But is it accurate?

A workplace bully is someone who repeatedly harms or mistreats employees by causing them pain or engaging in other forms of physical or verbal harassment. This can come in many forms at varying levels of severity, ranging from rude comments to public humiliation or even physical abuse. It is someone who abuses their position, singles out people to miss out on training, opportunities and metes out unfair treatment.

Feeling bullied and being bullied are very different.

Bullying isn’t expecting a team to produce quality work on time then questioning them when they don’t. Delays cost business money and deadlines are set for a reason.

If people feel too scared to communicate why they cannot meet deadlines, that’s a different thing all together.

Bullying at work is about isolating people, demeaning and humiliating them, being aggressive and shouty at them, gossiping about them and withholding information and work from them and then blaming them.

We go to work to do a job, not to be in tears, so it’s time to address, clarify and resolve what is workplace bullying and what is acceptable pressure.

Dominic Raab is the latest high-profile politician to be accused of bullying, presiding over a “perverse culture of fear” at the Ministry of Justice, with civil servants forced to see their doctors for stress, a formal complaint alleges.

He is described “abrupt” and “rude” with civil servants often left in tears after speaking to him or his senior team.

He faces two formal complaints, one relating to his justice secretary role, and the other as foreign secretary.

Firstly, a disclaimer. My workplace growing up was done in newsrooms in the 1980s, not a place for the feint-hearted, thin-skinned or slackers. The tales of what went on brings younger people’s jaws to drop in astonishment. 

Some justified, some not, but when I read that the complaint letter said, “the communication style of the deputy prime minister” and some working closely with him was “often abrupt, rude and can be upsetting.”, I was left asking, “And?”

Abrupt is standard in a high-pressure results-driven workplace with no time for sugar coating, niceties and fuss. Abrupt is often another word for direct. Rudeness can be a perception of both.

Working under pressure to deliver can reduce people to tears. Is that really bullying?

A former head of the Foreign Office said that civil servants had been “scared” to go into Raab’s office when he was foreign secretary. Lord McDonald of Salford told Times Radio that Raab was “not aware of the impact of his behaviour on the people working for him and couldn’t be made to see that impact.”

I’ve felt fear to face bosses in the past, but I’ve never felt bullied, however “curt” – another description of Raab - they were, just anxious my performance might not meet that individual’s rightly high expectations.

I have no idea what went on in those Whitehall offices and whether there was bullying, but it’s worrying that it’s a very easy accusation to throw against demanding bosses with an increasingly diluted definition.

It puts people off taking on responsibility when they see employees accusing bosses of bullying for anything from not being flexible enough to suit their own personal circumstances, communicating too directly or putting the interests of their business before the personal convenience of workers.

These high-profile cases must help to refocus and clarify what real bullying is and take these cases more seriously to drive out these types of managers for good and reset acceptable levels of pressure and expectations in the workplace.