January 12th, 2012

Work Bully Victims Struggle with Dangerous Stress

Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience, January 12, 2012

If you spend your workday avoiding an abusive boss, tiptoeing around co-workers who talk behind your back, or eating lunch alone because you’ve been ostracized from your cubicle mates, you may be the victim of workplace bullying. New research suggests that you’re not alone, especially if you’re struggling to cope.

Employees with abusive bosses often deal with the situation in ways that inadvertently make them feel worse, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Stress Management. That’s bad news, as research suggests that workplace abuse is linked to stress — and stress is linked to a laundry list of mental and physical ailments, including higher body weight and heart disease.

In at least one extreme case, workplace bullying has even been linked to suicide, much as schoolyard bullying has been linked to a rash of suicides among young people.

Bullying is “a form of abuse which carries tremendous health harm,” said Gary Namie, a social psychologist who directs the Workplace Bullying Institute. “That’s how you distinguish it from tough management or any of the other cutesy ways people use to diminish it.”

Struggle to cope

Namie was not involved in the new study, which surveyed nearly 500 employees about how they dealt with abusive supervision. Abusive supervisors are bosses who humiliate and insult their employees, never let them forget their mistakes, break promises and isolate employees from other co-workers, study author Dana Yagil of the University of Haifa in Israel told LiveScience.

About 13 to 14 percent of Americans work under an abusive supervisor, Yagil said. Her study on Israeli workers found that abused employees tend to cope by avoiding their bosses, seeking support from co-workers and trying to reassure themselves. As useful as those strategies might sound, however, they actually made employees feel worse. [7 Thoughts That Are Bad For You]

“It is understandable that employees wish to reduce the amount of their contact with an abusive boss to the minimum, but the strategies they use actually further increase their stress instead of reducing it,” Yagil said. “This may happen because these strategies are associated with a sense of weakness and perpetuate the employee’s fear of the supervisor.”

Tragic consequences

Avoiding a workplace bully might seem easier than avoiding a school bully, given that employees can quit their jobs. But workers get caught in a cycle of stress, Namie said. An online survey of targeted workers by the WBI found that they put up with the abuse for an average of 22 months.

The stress of the bullying may itself lead to bad decision-making, Namie said. A 2009 study in the journal Science found that stressed-out rats fail to adapt to changes in their environment. A portion of the stressed rats’ brains, the dorsomedial striatum, actually shrunk compared with that region in relaxed rats. The findings suggest that stress may actually re-wire the brain, creating a decision-making rut. The same may occur in bullied workers, Namie said.

“This is why a person can’t make quality decisions,” he said. “They can’t even consider alternatives. Just like a battered spouse, they don’t even perceive alternatives to their situations when they’re stressed and depressed and under attack.”

Sometimes this cycle ends with tragedy. Namie works as an expert legal witness on bullying. In one upcoming case, he said, a woman put up with daily barrages of screaming abuse from her boss for a year. By the end, she was working 18-hour days, trying to shield the employees under her from her boss’ tyranny, Namie said. Finally, she and several of her co-workers put together a 25-page complaint to human resources. Nothing happened, until she was called in for a meeting with senior management. The woman knew she would be fired for making the complaint, Namie said.

“Rather than allowing herself to be terminated, she bought a pistol, went to work, left three suicide notes, and she took her own life at work,” he said.

“She was like that rat stuck in a rut,” he added. “She didn’t see any alternative at that point.”

Why bullying happens

While all workplace-bullying cases are not so extreme, it does seem to be a common problem, said Sandy Herschcovis, a professor of business administration at the University of Manitoba who studies workplace aggression. Between 70 and 80 percent of Americans report rudeness and incivility at work, Herschcovis told LiveScience. Fewer are systematically bullied, she said, but the best estimate puts the number at about 41 percent of American workers having been psychologically harassed at work at some point.

Hierarchical organizations such as the military tend to have higher rates of bullying, Herschcovis said, as do places where the environment is highly competitive.

“Definitely the organizational context contributes,” Herschcovis said.

The personality of the bully is often key, with some research suggesting that childhood bullies become bullies as adults, she said. Targets of bullying are often socially anxious, have low self-esteem, or have personality traits such as narcissism, Herschcovis said. “We don’t want to blame the victim, but we recognize this more and more as a relationship” between the bully and the target, she said.

Little research has been done on how to deal with abusive bosses or bullying co-workers. In mild cases, where a boss may not realize how their behavior is coming across, direct confrontation might work, Yagil said. One research-based program that seems to have potential is called the Civility, Respect and Engagement at Work project, Herschcovis said. That program has been shown to improve workplace civility, reduce cynicism and improve job satisfaction and trust among employees, she said. The program has employees discuss rudeness and incivility in their workplace and make plans to improve. [8 Tactics to Bust the Office Bully]

For workers experiencing bullying, Herschcovis recommended reporting specific behavior to higher-ups, as well as examining one’s own behavior. Sometimes victims inadvertently contribute to the bullying relationship, she said. Namie cautioned that victims should proceed with care, however, as there are no anti-bullying workplace laws on the books in the U.S.

“HR [human resources] has no power or clout to make senior management stop,” Namie said. “Without the laws, they’re not mandated to make policies, and without the mandate, they don’t know what to do.”

Since 2003, 21 states have introduced some version of anti-bullying bills, but none have yet passed. Twelve states have legislation pending in 2012, according to healthyworkplacebill.org.

In the meantime, Herschcovis and her colleagues have found that bystanders in the workplace are usually sympathetic to the victim rather than the bully.

“Outside parties are most likely to want to intervene, and to be in a position to intervene,” Herschcovis said. The trick, she added, will be to find ways to encourage co-workers to stand up for one another.

View the original article at Live Science


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  1. Michelle says:

    This is so spot-on. My former boss did isolate me from others in the department and badmouthed me to new hires before they had any chance to form opinions about me. The thing is I didn’t care about this childish behavior, as long as I was allowed and trusted to do my job. But it was when she used that as a reason to get rid of me that it became an issue. I was under the impression that I had been hired to do a job, not rush a sorority.

    • kay says:

      Michelle, I know just what ya mean. That is exactly 100% of what I witnessed and found myself amongst and pulled into.

      I found that in my situation, even many women care nothing about what a man would do to another female, no matter how indecent. If you are labeled as what they labeled me a “Princess” even heinous crimes and acts done to you are ridiculed as if you deserved it for not being negative and getting with the bully clique or the attitude is that you will somehow just “get over it”.

      When approximately four sensible and decent women speak up, they are immediately intimidated by the company, and the bullies stand and comment on how the company is so unethical and would literally do or allow anything and laugh. If you are a very good employee with a near perfect record and mounds of documented accolades, the bullies will harass you even through a heinous harassment from a male. They will find out and nearly mock it.

      All of the fear from those even minor supporters is discussed right near you as you work. You begin to feel as if you are living within another lawless country. Nothing is ever the same in your life. You just wanted to work your job and be happy.

      • toya says:

        I too understand this behavior, I recently had to deal with a narcissistic boss who practiced bullying on a regular basis with her staff. When I chose not to participate, I became the target. It got so bad that EEOC and OEIG had to intervene on my behalf because my HR turned their back on me.

  2. Jay Jacobus says:

    Some studies indicate that bullying is inbred. All cultures have bullies without any formal plans to promote bullying.

    Some animals (primates for example) have bullies that just seem to emerge from the group. Perhaps there is an evolutionary advantage to bullying.

    In humanity, people should not accept survival of the fittest bully. They should look for a culture that supports the safety of each individual.

    Perhaps, safety from workplace aggression will only come when people like me can create an environment where the bully loses consistently. This may be a long time in coming but at least the effort is on.

    • Helium says:

      Yes, I think a lot of people misunderstand this “survival of the fittest” idea as a justification for their bullying behavior. First, they think “survival” refers purely to the ability to win in a one-to-one aggressive stand-off, which it’s not. (Fitness, in the evolutionary sense, refers only to whether or not a set of genes are well-adapted to the environment, as in spots that help a salamander blend into the forest.) Second, they think that if they can dominate another person, it must be because they deserve to be at the top of the food chain, as if to say “it’s fair because it’s the natural order of things” (which is a total misunderstanding). It’s a completely illogical, unscientific and self-serving misunderstanding of science.

  3. J. says:

    Hierarchical structure does seem to breed bullies. Academic administration is full of them.

    • Wendy says:

      ”The comment Gary made referring to the unfortunate taking of one’s life due to workplace bullying hits the nail on the wall! As he stated above:” She was like the rat stuck in a rut, he added “she didn’t see any alternative at that point.” May I add an opening to a speech I once gave : “When the little RATS get into trouble, the BIG RATS run faster, and when the BIG RATS run too fast, we have a RATS RACE!

  4. D says:

    I have worked in a hostile work enviornment for the past 6 years. By the time I realized that it was happening intentionally I was beaten to the point that I didn’t even have the energy to apply or interview for other jobs. I filed a EEO complaint and won but that didn’t stop it so now I have filed a workplace violence complaint and a retaliation complaint. I don’t understand how management can continue with this bullying and it is so obvious. I work for the Federal Government and am considering suing my tormentors personaly….why should tax payers continue to pay for intentional bullying…its time that they pay for their actions.

    • DS says:

      I can relate completely to you. But I have not filed a complaint because I work in a place that fosters a bullying culture. I could never win. Plus, it’s very hard to document when the behavior simply perplexed you for years.

  5. Jon says:

    This article, while well meaning, is totally clueless


    they are part of the problem and will not help you

    this article blames the victim as well, and what they should be talking about is Narcissism

    Narcs seek out people to abuse because that is the only way they generate self esteem

    WorkPlace Bullying is the result of a pathetic, toxic culture imbeded in me first workplaces

    If you are being bullied. Just quit

    Dont be like me and suffer from PTSD for years because i didnt quit, and i thought oh, its somehting i am doing.

    that is bullshit!

    Not all places are like that and you shouldnt have to work in a toxic workplace.

    • S says:

      I agree with Jon. I have been a Target and endured bullying in several forms by an insecure
      higher up. There is no one to go to as her boss is a bully too. HR is a joke. I am a confident professional who has been successful my entire career. Yet, appying for jobs and interviewing has been challenging as I have serious doubts about my abilities. I have been humiliated, put down in meetings and passed over for promotions to name just a few of the behaviours exhibited by this “woman”. All I can say is get support from your family, friends and a good counselor. Know it is NOT you. More than likely you have a skill, education, and confidence that the bully desires. The only way he or she feels better is by making you feel worse.
      The one thing I have learned through my experience is I will NEVER allow a coward to mess with me again. If they want to fire me for standing up for myself, so be it. Afterall, that is the bully’s plan from the start.

      • Kelley says:

        Couldn’t agree with Jon more. The purpose of HR to work in the best interests of the company when it comes to the employees. They do not have the employees best interests at heart. I worked for a bully for 3 years. I went to HR several times until I saw the HR rep I went to having lunch and laughing with my bi-polar boss. Everything I told that woman came back to haunt me.

        Every time I had a review my work performance was excellent and all her negative comments/marks were about my personality. Every review was a character assassination but I still worked my butt off trying to impress this woman. I would get accolades from her boss which she systematically ignored. I printed them and had them put in my HR file, which was a huge mistake. She made my entire team take the MBTI personality tests and then used the results of those tests to bully you, picking on your weak points and making you feel bad you were what the result said you were. She demeaned, yelled, belittled in meetings with our department and the entire organization. I was depressed, gained 30 lbs, had injuries, it was awful. It took ahwile but once I realized I was being bullied I got mad and dug my heels in. I started doing as little as possible to get my job done. I realized it didn’t matter how much or little work I did because I got the same raise, bonus and no promotions. My thought was if she is going to get rid of me, she is going to have to force me out. Wow did my life change, I got stronger and more confident though not quite at the level I was at before I began that job. And then I just waited because I knew it was a matter of time. During that time I did things for myself and got my personal life together, had fun.

        When the end came she had decimated our entire department one by one. Myself and another co-worker was all that was left. She finally let my co-worker go for not having finished her expense report from a recent trip to Japan by December 31, after she returned from said trip 2 days before christmas. She gave her 10 minutes to pack her desk and escorted her to the door. The next day my co-worker called me and asked me to send some of her personal belongings which I did, using the company mail room to do so. When my boss found out she was so pissed off that I didnt cower after she fired my friend she fired me for stealing company property which was a total lie.

        They sent me home that day without telling me they were firing me though or and I was able to get all my stuff and samples of my work.

        She called me on the train and told me not to come in the next day, she was going to decide my fate and call me in the morning. When she called she said they were letting me go I was so relieved but I gave her a fight. I asked firing me or laying me off, she said we are letting you go. So I asked again and again until she revealed they were laying me off because I broke her trust by sending my co-worker her stuff that included documentation she had written for the company and that was considered stealing. I’m a trainer who wrote materials for applications that millions of people use, I had never signed giving away my authoring rights nor was anything written about proprietary software, they were how to manuals. And to boot there was not one policy in the company regarding this topic. So I retorted one more time, funny how you didn’t have a problem with this when you gave my documentation to every other company in the area pawning it off as your own….that got her, she stammered. In the end I could hear her boss coaching her in the background to get off the phone because I now had grounds to sue for wrongful termination.

        She ended the conversation by stammering that no claims for unemployment would be denied, they were giving me severance. Damn straight. Though I lost my job, standing up for myself has never felt so good and I had spent the last year doing as little as possible and getting paid for it.

    • Sandy says:

      Thanks Jon I could not have said it better. I don’t know who these researchers talk to but they are blaming the target and HR / management are all part of the problem otherwise it would have been ‘managed’ from the outset. Toxic cultures are what allow bullying to thrive in the first place.

  6. cj says:

    I’m with Jon on this! When I first started my job, I had mild hypertension (one pill a day), since I have been under this narcissistic individual, I am on 6 different pills, two hypertension, 3 nerve pills, and 1 for my stomach. I too went to human resources and filed relating to working in an unsafe and hostile workplace, and nothing was done. This individual is male, has no respect for women, and we can always tell in the office when he has broken up with one of his girlfriends because he treats the women bad in the office who he feels will not cower away from him. He used to hold meetings to basically bash his wife and the fact he had to pay her $600.00 a month for child support. I even found out that she had to get an order of protection from him during their divorce. And now our job has our raises based on a merit system. 1/2 was cost living, and half was merit. On my evaluation, he claimed that I had a excellent year, but I did not get the complete half based on the merit. Even on the statements, where I was given an excellent, which would have been 4 points, I was given 3.7, 3.6 (even with no developmental needs). I do avoid him because he sickens me. When I talk to him, vomit sits in my throat which is why I take acid reflux meds. I pray the same prayer every morning when I get to work, Lord help me make it through the day, and provide for me a safer and healthier work place. I’m currently searching for another department to work in, another building, and one as far away from him as I can.

    • S says:

      CJ my heart goes out to you. I am a very healthy person but was diagnosed with multi level degenerative disk disease in my neck. My work environment has beocme so stressful from my bully that I have been treated for depression, take a strong nerve drug to help relieve the pain in my neck.
      If you have any way to exit out of the company completely, please explore that. If this bully is allowed to carry on with no disciplinary action even transferring to another building or dept may not take care of your situation. If it is allowed in the organization chances are there is another bully waiting.I would not want to give him a chance to tarnish your good name with another supervisor. These people are sick and defective. Until the law is passed bullying is legal.
      I know how you feel. My superior makes me want to puke and I avoid her like the plaque. When I think about my job (that I use to LOVE) and even see the logo I start getting anxiety. I am focusing on healing and helping others who are experiencing this. I can not allow her to have more control over my life.
      Good luck and God Bless You. He Knows…
      Just remember what the enemy uses to destroy you God turns it around for your good. Tough to see it when you are at the end of your rope. Trust me! I know!

      • Mary says:

        Heelo. I =have been “working” for a bully for 3 yrs. I had just come out of a divorce and was not able to make enough to live on in my own business, so I took a job in my degree field. I am the 3rd or fourth person in this position in the last 6 yrs. I also have one higher degree than she has. She started on me almost immediately. Nit picking gossiping about my job performance. She hand picked me from the other candidates so she could degrade me, since I have no real support system. She is insecure, has no self esteem and is a sociopathic narcissist. I had to take off of work last yr. on administrative leave just to be able to come together and go on. She has started a “mobbing” problem with the other women in my unit and another unit that we manage, punishing by using the silent treatment on them if they talk to me. She has tried to isolate me and has written me up and does her best to discredit me at every turn. She is a text book case. She also has a “side kick” in the office who is weakminded and insecure who “enables” her. Sad and horrible. I am in therapy, and I now realize that being a strong, intelligent person may make no difference. It is just like domestic violence, a steady drip, drip, drip of negative demeaning remarks and subversive actions to humiliate the victim and elevate the pathetic bully. I am looking for another job, although this is a small town, and places to work are not numerous. I will, with God’s love and strength, make a difference for my children by being active to pass a bill in my state to remedy workers of these preditors. God bless all of you who are experiencing this or have experienced it.

  7. Cheryl says:

    Article is spot on. The bully boss held differentials for 20 mos claiming I was greedy,when independent discovery of $8k shortshrift found she laughed it off.Another 20 mos past with health going,depression and being told to attend just one day of 2 day inservice, harassed when scheduled for surgery.Laid me off 22 hrs after stood asked for clarification on something.Scared of another bully.Really scared.

    • S says:

      I hear ya! I am terrified of going through another bullying episode. I am working hard to do something about my situation to preserve my sanity and continuing to be an asset to a company that desires and appreciates my skills and talents. Like I said earlier, I will never let it happen again. I kept notes, thank goodness, and will do so again wherever I am employed.
      I have been on short term disability and it has helped me heal and get a plan together.

  8. ebonie says:

    I agree with the article. I have been with my employer for a year and my boss lies, takes credit for work I do, constantly bullies me. Everyone sees it. I work in a public library and even the patrons complain about her. When I finally made a complaint and I am being harrased and excluded by almost everyone. One day they will talk to me and then they won’t. I finally decided to record what was happening and they broked into my locked cabinet stole the recorder, deleted the recordings I had and put it back. the police department is involved and said they will fingerprint and charge the guilty party with vandalism-that was in November, I haven’t heard anything back. I wonder if it could be b/c one of the main people harrassing me has family that works for that police dept. when i call i get the run around. I submitted complaints to hr and it’s ignored. in the 1 year that i have been there my blood pressure has gone up (never had issue before), i have gained 26 pounds, I have developed a uterin fibroid that makes me look 8 months pregnant (and they constantly make fun of me for it), i have developed irregular tissue in my breast that is now being monitored every 6 months, i have severe headaches, i have to drug myself to sleep, i know drink to sometimes calm myself, i have severe panick attacks, and i really just want to kill myself to end it. i have called attorneys and i get a conflict of interest from most-i believe it is because i work for the county. or i am told to just leave, not worth it and i don’t have enough in writing-how am i suppose to get them to write it i haven’t figured out yet. just quitting a job and finding another one is not always as easy as everyone thinks. It’s unbelievable how bold an open they are with harrassing me and defaming my name.

  9. Terri says:

    I can relate to everyone above! I’ve bee bullied, harrassed and humiliated for 6 years now. I’ve gone to his supervisors numerous times and they HAVE talked to him and told him to cool it. You can’t change a basic personality flaw! He’s an a–hole and everyone knows it! Everyone walks on eggshells. He’s been banned from coming to staff meetins because he was too disruptive.
    I’m starting counseling next week to try to salvage my self-esteem. Next step is to file with the EEOC and maybe force him to retire (he’s 62). I can’t take coming home in tears nearly every day anymore.

  10. BeenThereDoneThat says:

    Hey everyone, I’ve been through this before.
    True bullies will never be able to experience the lives we do. Lives with the potential for happiness, compassion, positive success, and emotional intelligence, among other things.

    Lives free of continual anger & other unhealthy behaviour.

    You need to find another job if they are relentless. Even if it takes months or a year, if you find better places, apply. Don’t remain at a place that chips away at you.

    If you need to go on assistance after leaving, do it. It will keep money coming in and stress low while you decide what’s next.

    Your mental health is more important than giving in to these people.

    Let them have their lousy job, while you keep your sanity and move on.

    You don’t get PTSD if there’s no trauma to begin with. You’re not alone out there with these sorts of experiences, but you have the power to improve your own.

  11. nancy says:

    Any article that blames the victim is out of it. Apparently the author has never been bullied. Many studies have shown that the typical “victim” is a quiet, hard worker, not a trouble maker in any way. Just because the psychopath bully knows how to spot that doesn’t make it right for them to demean the other person or take advantage of them. 

  12. Sunshine D says:

    what can we do? where can we turn? i work for a non-profit that was nasty to my deaf co-worker and now that she’s gonie i’m the only target and it’s a daily fight and struggle. i’ve tried speaking to the boss’ boss but convinced me not to take any action because it would do no good. they said they’d help me but never heard from them since and then it turns out he was at a meeting where the resolution was to fire me. what do i do?

  13. Sunshine D says:

    God Bless you Terri! its such a disgusting situation how one can hate you and use your lively hood as a way to punish you. i don’t mind being hated but i DO mind when personal feelings affect my lively hood. there’s no reason to tolerate this however it seems employers have more rights than employees. i will pray for you and others like us that are victims of this bullying. as a single parent, i have no choice. i dont know where to turn to anymore.

  14. Cyn Miller says:

    I’m a bit in shock! Not only do I suffer from depression and anxiety because I’ve been bullied at work, but this author is telling me the reason I was targeted was because I’m in some way inadequate or have a personality disorder? This article ultimately blames the victim, how sad. My bully never even got the chance to know who or how I was…he attacked me upon the first encounter.

  15. Pam Johnson says:

    HR will NOT help you! They will turn right around and tell the bully what you did.

  16. FLM says:

    I have been a victim of this before. As I worked as a contract worker for a upcoming oil and gas company where the CEO was young and I feel was easily persuade by others upper management or leads to move me from place to place, position to position, not at all for the postion I was hired for but my position and given more tasks along with that and expected to still meet my deadlines, almost alienate me from the rest of the group. I struggled to keep up. At times staying up all night just to get the work done. It was almost like they wanted or expected to break me but I managed to with very little sleep and very stressed to get the job done. Also I felt like because they didn’t feel I was adequate enough or social enough for them. The group frequently after work went to the bar to drink after work and I had other obligations, as a new mom, had to pick my little one right after work from the sitters didn’t have the luxury of joining them. They treated me differently. If anything I guess this only made me stand out to them more. They used to talk about me loudly from the next room, debating on whether or not they were going to keep me around or not. The owner, of course, kept asking what seems to be the problem and asking what can we do, where can we use her. However, these leads that gave such a opinionated view of my work ethic or work never once came to me with the problem they had with me so they can all be addressed so I never really had a chance to fix the issue. I loved the work I did. I never in my life have dealt with a problem as unnerving, unprofessional or inappropriate than this. They made me feel uncomfortable anywhere I was, the elevator ride down with any of them, while in the break room or if I walked in the room. They would all stop talking and make faces to each other as I walked around. It was like I was in HS AGAIN!!! I have never been the type of person to give up on something, previously at my last job for about 8 years and typically a very hard working person but I eventually, after 3 years gave my resignation. I could not take it any longer, I began to have headaches on a daily basis, stiff back and neck on a daily basis and the awkward looks and the alienation of everyone in the office began to be overwhelming. Even the new hires seemed to have a opinion on how things were coming across. Ask that if they have an issue with her that they come to her not talk about her loudly throughout the office as they did about me so the entire office could hear. I felt the new hires also then began to form their opinions about me from what the leads perceived me to be. Still completely baffled as to why it had to come to that. I asked if there was anything I was missing or I needed to work on that I was always, No. You’re doing great! But there was clearly an issue. Still very haunted by this whole experience.

    • FLM, Sadly your tale illustrates how the body reacts with stress-related health problems when you are under assault and how petty groups as they socially exclude peers. Turning new hires against you seems especially cruel. Haunted but hopefully now safe and appreciated for the quality of your work somewhere else.

  17. […] Perhaps this is because new mental health research indicates that when people with Depression are demeaned or humiliated, it can trigger a suicide. http://www.workplacebullying.org/2012/01/12/livescience/ […]

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