Featured: Workplace Bullying and Its Effects on Health

[Note: Dr. Kerlin’s Powerpoint presentation on workplace bullying is available on request. Direct link for this page: grad-mentor.com/workplace-bullying]

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is a relatively common occurrence that can have severe consequences for employee health and job security.

Dr. Gary Namie, who heads the Workplace Bullying Institute, defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of an employee by one or more people involving abusive conduct which is:

* verbal or nonverbal
* involving threats, intimidation, humiliation, or
* exploitation of a known physical or psychological disability, or

* belittling and exclusion
* work interference, sabotage, or
* any combination of any or all of these.

Dr. Lynne Curry, author of Beating the Workplace Bully: A Tactical Guide to Taking Charge (2016) defines workplace bullying as:
“Psychological violence and aggressive manipulation in the form of repeated humiliation or intimidation, and may include situational, verbal, or physical abuse. It can take the forms of (1) verbal bullying; (2) situational bullying; or (3) physical bullying.”

Toxic Workplaces, Toxic Bosses and Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is often a byproduct of a toxic work environment, which is defined as one where negative behaviors–such as manipulation, bullying, yelling, and so on–are so intrinsic to the culture of the organization that a lack of trust, high stress levels, infighting, and discrimination become the norm.

A toxic work environment is one that makes employees feel “psychologically unsafe” and fearful of being punished, humiliated or rejected for speaking up. Often such workplaces can lead to anxiety or depression, and employees can find themselves dreading going to work because they feel trapped–fearing stress and rejection, but feeling that they desperately need to keep working.

How prevalent is workplace bullying, and who is responsible?

According to results from the 2021 Workplace Bullying Survey,

* More than 49 million U.S. workers reported directly experiencing some form of bullying in 2021

* Two-thirds of bullies were bosses, an additional 21% were coworkers, and another 14% were from subordinates

* Two-thirds of overall bullies are males, and their targets are most commonly other males (60%); among female bullies (one-third of total), nearly 65% of targets are females

* Full results are available from the 2021 Workplace Bullying Survey flyer.

When the boss is a toxic bully

* When the boss is a bully–especially if the boss is near or at the top of the organization’s leadership–employees can feel endlessly pressured to please them, at the cost of their well-being

* As Curry (2016) points out, bully bosses dominate, exploit, and devalue their staff

* Toxic bully bosses are very poor communicators, resulting in employees feeling like they are endlessly “walking on eggshells”

* All too often, toxic bosses have a high need for control but are physically absent or totally unaccountable to their subordinates

What are the most common effects of workplace bullying on mental and physical health?

Research about the effects of workplace bullying provided by VeryWellMind shows that workplace bullying can have severe negative impact on the health and well-being of employees, and it can damage workplace productivity and performance. Among the most common symptoms:

* Increased stress, low self-esteem, feelings of anxiety and depression

* High blood pressure (hypertension)

* Mood changes, panic attacks, stress and ulcers

* In some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

* Feelings of powerlessness become overwhelming

If bullying is causing high stress, what are some of the leading indicators?

* Irritability, aggression, self-destructive behavior, hypervigilence, easily startled, confusion, concentration problems

* Persistent migraine headaches, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal system disorders, neurological disorders, adrenal gland disorders

* Suicidal ideation, total social withdrawal, wanting to hide, wild mood swings, sadness, crying spells, feelings of isolation, persistent self-doubt, nightmares

* Tendency to transfer feelings of distress to family members and friends

How can you manage the effects of workplace bullying?

* Set boundaries whenever possible

* Confront the bullying behavior

* Maintain a detailed log of any incidents of bullying you experience or witness in the workplace

* Take steps to disengage from the workplace (including uses of sick leave, vacation, leave of absence if an available option) if stress levels become too severe

Where can you turn for help if you are the target or a witness of workplace bullying?

* Find allies, both inside the workplace and outside, who will support you as you address your options

* If you feel safe in doing so, contact someone in the Human Resources office who may be able to provide you information about your rights and options

* Seek mental health counseling outside of the organization

For confidential counseling and mental health support, contact Dr. Kerlin.

For more information and research relating to workplace bullying, be sure to visit GradMentor’s related Research Guides:

(1) Research on Toxic Workplaces, Toxic Managers, and Workplace Bullying

(2) Research on Mental Health, Stress and Trauma in the Workplace

(3) Research on Burnout in the Workplace and the Professions

(4) Research on Human Relations and Employee Job Satisfaction in the Workplace

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