Anita Hill turned sexual harassment into a front-burner issue in workplaces across America.

Gary and Ruth Namie want to do the same thing for harassment that has nothing to do with sex or gender.The Namies, a husband-and-wife team of psychologists in Benicia, are trying to ignite a national campaign against what they call "workplace bullying" - hurtful and repeated mistreatment of people by their bosses, co-workers or even subordinates.

"Workplace bullying damages people's self-esteem, just like schoolyard bullying," said Gary Namie. "But schoolyard bullying doesn't impact your whole family, your livelihood, the course of your career. The consequences are much more severe."

Skeptics deny that bullying is a widespread problem at work and question how far companies should go in trying to police the interactions of their staff.

"We can't even define sexual harassment: How are we going to define what a bully is?" asked Michael Lotito, a lawyer who represents employers with Jackson Lewis in San Francisco.

But the Namies, who run a counseling and consulting business called the Work Doctor, seem to be hitting a nerve with the public.

Their Web site logs 40,000 hits a month. They've counseled more than 2,000 people by phone, e-mail or in person since opening their doors two years ago. They even got a call recently about appearing on that barometer of the American zeitgeist - "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

There is also a small but growing cadre of academic researchers who are studying workplace bullying and how it affects both employee well-being and corporate productivity.

"We're starting to define this as a social problem - not merely a case of two people who can't get along," said Loraleigh Keashly, an organizational psychologist at Wayne State University in Detroit.

What does workplace bullying look like?

One Bay Area grocery worker who asked to remain anonymous contacted the Namies because of a supervisor who constantly told her she was a "nothing" and said things like, "I could do your job in two hours, but it takes you eight hours."

And Helen King, a federal employee from Orinda, turned to the Namies because of a boss who she says constantly interrupted her, berated her in public, set her up to fail and once even threatened to bring his gun to work and "use it."

"I'd start work at 6:15 a.m., and by 7, I'd be in tears," said King.

Bullying can be a pattern of condescending remarks, arbitrary rages or efforts to sabotage someone's work. It can include physical acts - slammed doors, raised fists - but is more often verbal.

Unlike sexual harassment or racial discrimination, bullying is typically legal. The victim may have trouble convincing superiors or co-workers that anything unusual is going on. But psychologically, experts claim, it can still be devastating.

"I started sleeping less and less because of stress," recounted King, who ultimately changed jobs to get away from her boss. "I'd go to sleep and then after 45 minutes I'd be up - bam! - wide awake and worried. I started getting asthma attacks and headaches.

"People don't want to believe that someone at work can make you feel this bad," King said. "So when I found Ruth and Gary, I was so relieved. I said to myself, `My goodness, I'm not alone! I'm not making this up!' "

The term "workplace bullying" actually comes from Europe, where psychologists and labor unions have sounded an alarm about abusive managers for several years.

In the United States, researchers use a variety of terms such as "emotional abuse in the workplace" or "workplace aggression."

There's no data available to show whether bullying is on the rise or the decline. There are only a few limited studies on how many people face workplace abuse - but these studies indicate that it's pretty common.

Harvey Hornstein, a psychology professor at Columbia University, surveyed 1,000 people and found that nine out of 10 had at some point worked for a "brutal boss" - someone who did things like humiliate them in public or blame them for his or her own failures.

At any given time, Hornstein said, about one in five Americans have such a boss.

"Let's suppose that one-in-five is a great exaggeration and there are just a lot of whiny people out there," Hornstein said. "Even if it's really just one in 20 or 30 who have a brutal boss, we're still talking about several million people dealing with this every day. It's an enormous problem."

Researchers like Hornstein are careful to distinguish legitimate work criticism from bullying, and tough-but-fair bosses from bullying bosses.

They suggest that workplace bullying can hurt companies as well as individual employees.

Christine Pearson, a management professor at the University of North Carolina, surveyed 775 people who said they had been treated rudely or disrespectfully at work. Her findings:

- 53 percent lost work time worrying about the incident or future interactions.

- 28 percent lost work time avoiding the instigator.

- 10 percent decreased the amount of time they spent at work.

- 12 percent actually changed jobs to avoid the instigator.

"The implication for corporate costs is a pretty powerful one," Pearson said.

Joel Neuman, a management professor who studies workplace aggression, said he found that bullying behavior is more commonly directed at co-workers than at subordinates.

"Our research has found that most aggression is between peers, or people who work side by side - not hierarchically," said Neuman, at the State University of New York at New Paltz. "Males are a little more likely to be physically aggressive at work, while women tend to be verbally aggressive."

The Namies got involved in the issue of workplace bullying through their own experience.

Ruth Namie was hired as a psychologist at a Bay Area health clinic by a boss who, after a one-month honeymoon period, began accusing her of doing everything wrong. Although Namie was an experienced professional in her 40s, she gradually began to doubt her own competency. The worst moment came when the boss screamed at her in a hallway filled with co-workers and clients.

"She was female, and I was female; she was white, and I was white," Ruth Namie recalled. "So it wasn't discrimination or sexual harassment. It was just horrific behavior."

Gary Namie found articles about bullying from England on the Inter-net. The two decided to share the information with others and launched their business.

"There are so many people out there who are hurting, and who need to know they didn't do anything wrong to bring this upon themselves," Ruth Namie said.

Today Ruth Namie does psychological counseling for people in abusive work situations - the "Kleenex calls," as the couple calls them. Gary Namie conducts strategy sessions with bullying victims and their spouses, helping them come up with ways to defuse the abusive behavior and keep their careers going.

The couple lead anti-bullying workshops for groups of employees. They're trying to forge ties with labor unions, with an eye toward a national anti-bullying conference in 2000.

The Namies also hope to be hired by employers who want to draft anti-bullying policies - but that may be a hard sell.

Few companies see a pressing need for a new layer of personnel policies aimed at bullying.

And some management experts say that the tight labor market is already forcing companies to treat workers better than in the past.

"In Silicon Valley, with the kind of unemployment figures we have, you'd have to be nuts to be abusive to your employees," said Lynn Hermle, a lawyer who represents employers with Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe in Palo Alto.

"We're already doing more training now in managerial skills than ever before," said Jeffrey Tannenbaum, a management-side lawyer with Littler Mendelson in San Francisco. "If anything, I'd say that abuses are decreasing. The workplace is probably nicer than ever before."