Over the last decade research into bullying, emotional abuse and harassment at work, primarily of a non-physical nature, as distinct from sexual and racial harassment, has emerged as a new field of study in Europe, Australia, South Africa and the USA. European research into this problem started in Scandinavia in the 1980s and spread during the late 1990s to many other European countries as well as to Australia. Using the concept of 'mobbing' in the context of work Heinz Leymann was inspired by progress in the study of aggressive behaviour among schoolchildren, aimed at singling out individual children for negative treatment, to pioneer systematic studies of similar types of behaviour in the world of work. The focus of this approach, which has gained considerable momentum in recent years, is the process whereby hostile and aggressive behaviour is directed systematically at one or more colleagues or subordinates, leading to a stigmatisation and victimisation of the target. Central to any definition of 'mobbing', referred to as 'bullying' in most English-speaking countries, is the enduring and repeated nature of the negative behaviour to which the target is being exposed.
Despite several commendable attempts, it was only with the work of Loraleigh Keashly in the 1990s that a coherent conceptual framework of workplace bullying emerged in the USA. The American psychiatrist Carroll Brodsky published an extensive report on the issue of bullying at work in 1976, entitled the The harassed worker, but it appears that this book only had an impact much later. Rather, the US research in the area of hostile behaviours that may be relevant to workplace bullying is found in a variety of literatures, using many different concepts such as workplace aggression, emotional abuse, generalised workplace abuse, mistreatment and workplace harassment. Applying the term 'emotional abuse', Keashly highlights the prolonged suffering identified with the concept of bullying at work. This approach places the conflict process right at the centre of attention by focusing on interpersonal conflict in the workplace, involving behaviour which is unwanted and unwelcome, and which is perceived as abusive, inappropriate and offensive by the recipient of such behaviour, as well as the standard of behaviour which may be seen as unreasonable, and which appears to violate an individual's rights.