Is Bullying and Abuse Slowly Killing Workers?

It seems to me that every few months, a flurry of news reports and research articles appear describing office and workplace bullying. In the popular press, these articles usually serve a descriptive function to inform those individuals who have never heard of such a phenomenon what it is. Of course, anyone who has been a target of a bully or witnessed a bullying encounter can easily describe to you the feelings. In one of my favorite research articles, Nightmares, Demons, and Slaves: Exploring the Painful Metaphors of Workplace Bullying, Sarah Tracy, Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, and Jess Alberts discovered that victims of workplace bullying typically think of themselves in terms such as “vulnerable children,” “slaves,” or “prisoners.” It is in these narrative accounts, that we really understand some of the psychological impacts of workplace bullying. However, many people still wonder what sort of physiological effect being a target or witnessing bullying might have on individuals.

There have been many research articles reporting the negative physiological effects of bullying (either being the target or the witness) on physiological outcomes. For instance, a major (perhaps first of its kind) study by researchers in Denmark found the following key things:

  • Witnesses to bullying reported more symptoms of anxiety and reported lower supervisor support.
  • Targets of bullying reported lower social support from supervisors and co-workers than their counterparts.
  • Targets of bullying reported greater instances of depression, anxiety, and negative affect.
  • Importantly, targets of bullying had lower cortisol levels than those individuals who were not bullied.

So, there is the key finding — that last bullet point. Bullying, a situation that occurs in the workplace, seemingly had a major effect on an important body system — the stress response. While researchers are a bit confused as to the meaning behind lower or higher morning cortisol levels, this finding does indicate that there is a physiological difference in those individuals who were the targets of bullying. Of course, we can assume that these bullied workers are experiencing a negative stress response, potentially leading to some major health consequences.

In a recent MSNBC/Today Monday article, the results of a research project conducted at the University of Haifa were discussed. In the article, the authors describe the fact that those people who have an abusive boss tend to have higher instances of heart disease. Indeed,this statement supports the notion that our workplace relationships tend to affect our health. Of course, the outcomes can be incredibly scary, with even some reports of suicide reported as a result of bullying, even among adults.

The researchers at the University of Haifa argue that more than 14% of American workers experience bullying. That’s a large number. To think that more than 1 in 10 Americans have experienced or are currently the targets of bullying says a lot about the lack of support in our workforce. Importantly, bullying is systematic and long-term, which could explain some of the reasons why individual targets typically have rapidly deteriorating health. Imagine coming to work every day, just to know that you will be abused by the office bully. So, what can we do to stop this?

I think the first step is to begin a conversation about workplace bullying. That is easier said than done, as many people think that bullying doesn’t really happen in the workplace. I have even heard some decision-makers claim that employees should just “toughen up” and “deal with the bully on their own.” Of course, that advice is horrible — it’s not like these targets asked to be bullied in the first place. On top of that, our workplaces shouldn’t include such blatant abuse. In a nicely written white paper, Sarah Tracy, Jess Alberts, and Kendra Rivera — members of Arizona State University’s Project for Wellness and Work Life give eight easy-to-implement techniques to increase organizational discourse around workplace bullying, especially when approaching organizational decision-makers and/or managers about bullying events:

1. Be rational — tell a story in a linear fashion and ensure that as much emotion is removed from the conversation (very difficult to do, I know).
2. Similar to #1, you should express emotion appropriately — that is to create a vivid verbal image of the situation through strong and calm verbal and nonverbal communication
3. Provide Consistent Details — try hard to record the actions along with the bully’s actions. Use a calendar to recall specific dates and times. Write these things down.
4. Offer a Plausible Story — Keep your story simple and avoid dwelling on outrageous events.
5. Be Relevant — focus on the bullying behaviors and try to get other targets of the bully to support you in your discussion.
6. Emphasize your own competence — Avoid being labeled a problem employee by explaining how the workplace and your own work is being hindered by this bully.
7. Show consideration for others’ perspectives — Acknowledge the fact that the bully may not know that his or her actions are wrong.
8. Be specific — Use specific, concrete language.

While these steps may seem like a small step toward trying to liberate targets of bullying, I think the first step is that we start to have appropriate conversations about bullying. I would like to add one other step — try to form a coalition. Consider those people in your organization who have witnessed these bully’s actions and see if you can get the entire group to agree that these actions are wrong. Use your social support network to help form a united front to administration. Remember, there is a strong likelihood that you are not the only target of this bully, which means that your collective actions can be stronger than your individual ones. Of course, that is support at work!

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