Banter vs Bullying?

In the previous issue of Demolition and Dismantling I introduced the NFDC’s new mental health and wellbeing programme, and at the time of writing this article, four Mental Health Awareness workshops have been delivered across three regions – London and Southern Counties, North East and North West.

I’m delighted to announce that many more workshops are scheduled meaning all members can benefit from both the mental health awareness and wellbeing ambassadors’ workshops. In addition there will be an array of information, promotional material and video toolbox talks that will be circulated to your ambassadors; all of which will enable them to continue developing and accelerating the mental health and wellbeing agenda within your business and that of the wider industry.

A Demolition Programme for Demolition People

One of the key benefits of the programme is that it was designed for the demolition industry, meaning everyone who has attended interacts and this has stimulated some great, engaging discussions around the theme of mental health and wellbeing.

However, only four sessions in we are seeing a theme.  That theme – Banter! The discussions have concerned site behaviours and in particular how the use of banter is commonplace within our industry. I’m sure everyone has heard someone say, “It’s just a bit of bants, lighten up!” or “I was only having the Craic, relax!” but have you ever thought how the person on the receiving end of the banter may feel? The reality is the phrase “It’s only a bit of banter” is too often used as an excuse for bad behaviour or even bullying.

What is Banter?

To help us understand banter a little further it’s worth considering where the word originated and what we mean by banter in the world we live in today. The origins are vague however it appears to have first been used as street slang in London three hundred years ago. Back then its meaning was ‘to tease or ridicule’, usually in an aggressive manner. It seems however that over the centuries the definition has evolved and the Oxford English Dictionary now describes it as ‘the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks’.

Interestingly, if banter is used as a ‘playful and friendly exchange’ many experts in the field of social interaction regard it as a normal part of social development often used for building and fostering relationships. This is supported by The Institute of Leadership & Management who undertook research with its members to understand more about banter in the workplace. It found that the most popular reported use of workplace banter was intended to get to know colleagues better (by 65% of men and 56% of women respectively).

Banter can also contribute to making the long hours on a construction site more enjoyable, fun and rewarding and even help people deal with complicated situations or difficult topics that someone may find hard to address, and ultimately helping to ‘break the ice’ on what could be a tricky situation to confront.

But if banter is used in such a way as that it is ‘teasing or ridiculing’, then problems can occur and rather than fostering a good working environment or positive relationships, it can have the opposite effect causing people to suffer low self-confidence and potentially mental ill-health.

So consider when addressing site behaviour and in particular when you hear the word banter – is this banter actually bullying? Where is the line drawn? Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule to this question because what one person considers playful and friendly may differ from the person who is on the receiving end.

From a simplistic point of view, true banter is friendly and, most importantly, an exchange by two or more people who are both in on the act. If the banter is relentlessly targeted at an individual then this can quickly appear to the receiver as bullying. Additionally, once others join in, this mob bullying can become not only extremely upsetting but frightening and intimidating.

Banter can also quickly shift in to a darker space if it is taken too far, such as a shared conversation that starts between two people but is then aired in public with the aim of humiliating a person. The line between banter and bullying is ambiguous however the armed forces provide the following guide. Whilst this is not at all prescriptive it helps to highlight some of the differences between banter and bullying.

  • Is only one person in on the ‘joke’?
  • Does the comment or action have the effect of embarrassing, insulting or shaming?
  • Is the joke about someone’s gender, sexuality, race of other characteristic?
  • Is it an unwanted sexual comment or advance?
  • Does the recipient say, or otherwise show, that they don’t like it?

Unfortunately, the reality is that people suffering from workplace banter that has gone too far are often reluctant to do anything about it. This is when banter has crossed the line into bullying. If someone feels humiliated, then the ‘it’s only a bit of banter’ has stopped being funny. If people constantly feel they are being bullied and are not engaging in the banter significant mental health problems could occur such as anxiety or depression.

Anxiety, for example, is a feeling we have when we are worried, tense or afraid about things that are about to happen or which we think could happen in the future. If someone is constantly on the receiving end of one-sided workplace banter they could easily feel overwhelmed, stressed or anxious, constantly worry about the next interaction or ‘bit of banter’.

Whereas depression is a feeling of low mood that lasts for a long time and affects everyday life. In its mildest form, depression doesn’t stop someone leading a normal life, but it makes everything harder to do and seem less worthwhile. At its most severe, depression can make a person feel suicidal, and be life-threatening.

We all play a part in making the working environment a safe and enjoyable place to work and it’s never okay for behaviour to be dismissed as just banter if someone is clearly not enjoying the interaction. However our working days are long and arduous so we need to find some balance where we can work, live and laugh along together.

As my colleague, Steve Muggridge, Director at Synergy Wellbeing, who collaborated and is jointly delivering the NFDC mental health and wellbeing programme remarks, “There is a fine line between banter and bullying but this doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with each other, we just need to be aware of the impact this could have on someone’s mental health”.

Mental Health and Wellbeing in the demolition industry is a key strategic priority for the NFDC and should be top of the agenda for all reputable demolition contractors in the UK. To ensure you are doing everything you can for your most important assets, your people. Take this opportunity and register for both the Mental Health Awareness and Wellbeing Ambassador workshops.

The Continuous Personal Development (CPD) Certification Service describing the NFDC Mental Health Awareness workshop as “a comprehensive, informative and very well-structured course delivering excellent learning value for the intended audience. Very good interactivity with videos, activities and learning opportunities throughout”. Additionally, your counterparts in the industry have made the following comments “excellent course, pitched at the right format specifically for the construction industry”, “fully enjoyed the course” and “bloody awesome”.

The Wellbeing Ambassador workshops will commence in September and I’m delighted to confirm that after the full day session the ambassadors will be furnished with all the materials they will need to drive the mental health and wellbeing agenda within your business. This includes the first of four-video toolbox talks that are designed to be showed to every demolition contractor.

It’s OK, not to be OK. This is a vital message to send and it’s our aim to ensure everyone who works in the demolition industry knows that their employers are equipped with the right information, resources, skills and abilities to help at times when they are not.

Dave Price, Managing Director

Vector Equilibrium Ltd