September 30th, 2011

Complex PTSD: Devastating Health Effects From Workplace Bullying

By Andrew Mitchell
Suite 101
August 18th 2010

The harming effects of workplace bullying can go further than mere embarrassment. A target may become psychologically injured after long-term abuse.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, "workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse; offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; and work interference (sabotage) which prevents work from getting done."

Workplace bullying has devastating effects on the targeted individual. Not only does one feel that their job is in jeopardy, they may also start to feel physically ill and emotionally harmed.

Workplace Bullying Liabilities

Bullying poses great liabilities to employers, including:

  • Occupational health and safety violations;
  • Actions for negligence or intentional infliction of mental suffering; or
  • Defamatory actions.

Another concern that arises from workplace bullying is stress-related illness. These illnesses can range over many categories. It is not uncommon for people under extreme stress to develop symptoms of heart disease (i.e. high blood pressure), gastrointestinal disorders (i.e. irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers) and many other ailments. The stress that results from bullying can lead to long-term illnesses; some ailments by affect an individual for life.

Bullying and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

As a result of the negative feelings associated with workplace bullying, targets are at a very high risk of developing mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorder. Their way of living is attacked for no apparent reason and often, the attacker is intent on harming the target for no apparent reason. Targets may endure abuse day in and day out for months or even years. This abuse harms their overall health. While depression and anxiety can be debilitating, targets may experience symptoms that are different. Yet finding a fitting diagnosis causes a bit of a controversy among some professionals.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) describes symptoms that result when a person is involved in a short-term or single traumatic event. Examples include accidents, natural disasters, assault, attempted murder and rape because these are considered to be of short duration. However, the trauma related to workplace bullying is not an isolated, short-term event.

Long term or chronic events that span a period of months or years tend to develop symptoms that vary from PTSD. There is usually more intense psychological harm when one experiences repeated trauma. There may be complete changes to one's concept of who they are and in their ability to cope with stressful situations.

During long-term traumas, people are held in physical and/or emotional captivity. They are under the influence of their abuser and unable to get out of the situation they are in. Examples include:

  • Prisoner of War camps
  • Long-term domestic violence
  • Repeated, severe physical abuse
  • Childhood sexual abuse

Some psychologists believe that a different term, Complex PTSD (C-PTSD), should be used to identify trauma that is repeated or long-term. Bullying targets may show symptoms that are similar to PTSD and/or C-PTSD. For this reason, researchers of workplace bullying believe that bullying should be considered an example of captivity.

C-PTSD is not a recognized diagnosis in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. It should be noted, however, that the main difference between the two types of PTSD is the cause of the disorder in the patient. Symptoms of the two types are much the same. For this reason, therapists may diagnose bullying targets with PTSD, allowing patients receive treatment.

The Symptoms of Complex PTSD

Above all, to be considered for a diagnosis of C-PTSD, the target must experience an extended period under the control of another person. After this has been established, other symptoms must be taken into account.

According to Julia M. Whealin, Ph.D. and Laurie Slone, Ph.D., in the May 22, 2007 version of the US Department of Veterans Affairs site, Complex PTSD, there are symptoms that would occur if someone has been chronically victimized, including:

  • Persistent sadness, explosive anger; inhibited anger; suicidal thoughts;
  • Forgetting traumatic events or reliving them. Feeling detached from one's mind or body;
  • Feelings of helplessness, shame, guilt and stigma. One may feel that they are different than other people;
  • Attributing total power to the abuser. Preoccupation with the perpetrator, possibly becoming obsessed with revenge;
  • Social isolation, distrust in others or repeatedly searching for a rescuer; and
  • A loss of faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair.

Other difficulties that may be experienced by people with C-PTSD include:

  • Avoiding topics related to the trauma due to feelings that are too overwhelming;
  • Abusing alcohol/other substances to avoid and/or numb feelings/thoughts associated with trauma;
  • Self-mutilating and/or other types of self-injurious behaviors.

Workplace bullying is a serious issue due to the harmful health issues it causes. People have committed suicide and/or harmed others while in the throes of PTSD episodes. One should consult their doctor and/or a mental health professional if experiencing symptoms, especially feelings that cause one to be a danger to self or others.

Originally posted at Suite101


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  1. Bruno Santos says:

    Very good and highly informative article.

  2. Cheryll says:

    What I never hear about in discussions about this topic is the bizarreness demonstrated by people with complex ptsd. Behavior can become far off standard. Inappropriate jokes. Inappropriate comments. Losing things. Lateness for events. Compulsive behaviors.

  3. Bente Schou says:

    I can only say that Bruno Santos is so right; It is a very good & highly informative article, which I hope, WHO will take into concideration. I´m more C-PTSD than PTSD …. I´ll have to get permission to use this article, in my case, in Denmark.
    Thank You !

  4. Jay Jacobus says:

    Often mental disabilities are often tied to a suffer’s heredity. But I defy anyone to be mentally sound while trapped in a toxic situation.

    This article is important because it tells families and professionals to look beyond genetics and seek a change in environment.

    Long term submission to a bully must lead to devastating symptoms for the target.

    The psychiatric profession should be informed.

  5. kay says:

    I think that this statement was the key for me-“During long-term traumas, people are held in physical and/or emotional captivity”

    That is exactly what it feels like. You are in the presence of folk that you would undoubtedly avoid if that option were available. IT IS CAPTIVITY. You have to work, options are scarce. you have a family and must stay put right there and listen to your sicko supervisor say the most graphic things and then find out what has been done to you.

    When the environment is toxic, it is hard to sit and listen to the toxicity going on around you.

    I have suffered and still am suffering most of those bullet points to varrying degrees, some extreme and dibilitating. I just dont think of anything the same anymore and wish i could have my mental solice back.

    • Jay Jacobus says:

      Society has yet to fully recognize the plight of the victim. While there are some occassional articles that show understanding and compassion, the majority of people see bullying as an issue between two people.

      This article should be distributed to mental health professionals, HR managers, CEO’s and COO’s.

      While some may turn a deaf ear, others may begin to see the extent of this problem and take action.

      Action is sorely needed.

  6. Rex says:

    As far as I know the medical profession does not widely acknowledge workplace bullying as a cause C-PTSD and / or PTSD. It is important that they do and that this understanding is clearly communicated to the judiciary, the legal profession and the law makers. This will ensure that the relevant law offers adequate compensation (and deterrent) for the damage done by workplace bullying.

  7. alex d says:

    Occupational health professionals must manage the complexities of medical surveillance. They have to record employee health data from workplace injuries and illnesses, clinic visits, immunizations, audiometric exams, flu clinics, wellness programs, and lab tests. And, it’s not enough to just collect the data: They must be able to report on it in multiple formats. OHS software is essential to a company.

  8. Will Clark says:

    If a worker is in a toxic environment for a long period of time it is important to document what has happened so that legal action might be taken later.
    This is the only hope that employees have of ridding the workplace of the narcisistic,maladjusted tyrants that somehow seem to leak into postions of authority.
    If you can escape, then do so. Working for an abusive individual or one you suspect is mentally ill is like playing Russian Roulette with your career and livelyhood.You may wind up losing credit for anything you manage to accomplish or be blamed for what goes wrong.Up to and including criminal liability for things that were not your doing.You will not get out with a decent reputation, if you take legal action you will be marked for the remainder of your working life.We as a nation are by and large at will workers. We have very few rights. Better to leave your job than to lose your mental and physical health.
    People are caught in a meat grinder at this time because of the economy. They can not move to other employment. They are told that if they resign they may not work for a long time if ever.
    Having been caught in this situation you can make poor choices and jump from the pan into the fire. There is a lot of room for improvement in workplace relations and the next situation may be worse.
    Do not expect sympathy from friends or family because chances are they have or are going throuh it themselves. Do not expect much from the justice system unless you have a clear cut case of a civil rights violation based on age, gender,race religion etc. Do not allow yourself to lose control and seek vengance, because that only plays into a bullies hand. At any given time a large percentage of the population is suffering from mental illness. Most of these people are employed. Studies have shown that individuals with certain disorders such as NPD actually have a tendancy to become managers because of thier aggressive tendancies, me first mentality and lack of conscience. Good luck. If at all possible choose who you work for as carefully as you would choose a spouse.

    • itisme says:

      I am a faculty member at California State University.It is amazing how workplace bullying is pervasive and how little the high level administration will do.
      I have virtually identical experience to reported here. My story is virtually identical to Mr. Clark. I have contributed more than the rest of the department to quality.
      As a reward, I am experiencing all of these harms listed and more:
      According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, “workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse; offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; and work interference (sabotage) which prevents work from getting done.”

  9. Guest says:

    Jay Jacobus makes an important point – workplace bullying is never about only two people.  There are always others who either stand by or go along with the bully (largely out of fear of becoming a target themselves).

    And yes, it is very difficult to have psychiatrists recognize bullying as the cause of a condition with such a mix of symptoms.  DSM needs an update that recognizes CPTSD properly.

  10. Sonia in Oz says:

    Bullying and harrassment (B & H) is part of a set of workplace safety issues.  B & H affects individuals who are targetted from all walks of life and backgrounds. The potential damage to the individual and cost to the organization is undisputed.  There is so much that an organization can do like making known a zero tolerance policy, setting up policies and procedures, reporting mechanisms for complaints, contact officer networks of trained colleagues, ensuring grievances are dealth with indepently, in a timely manner and kept in confidence and finally monitoring the effectiveness of these steps on a regular basis.
    I love the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health …. mental health a state of wellbeing in which the individual realizes their own abilities, can cope with the normal stressors of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his/her community.
    If this is taken away in the work environment there are consequences outside the workplace for family, friends and health service providers.
    The community whether at work or in other places therefore cannot afford to let the bully run rampant.  Remember it takes only one person to speak up and make a difference.  Let that person be you if you have the opportunity.

  11. anonymous says:

    Thank you for giving me a voice. I was bullied at work resulting in early labour, death of my baby and miscarriages.

  12. Fi woolfe says:

    Ptsd for two years after workplace bullying that forced me to quit my career is worse than the actual bullying. I thought by getting out of it physically i would be safe from it. But ptsd is a constant reminder of it all, my failure to stand up for myself and the burden i am now on my family.

    • Heather says:

      Love reading posts from this article. Once you have been separated from others you are never the same. You loose yourself afraid of the reprocussions of what is going to happen if you defend yourself. I hope one day my psychiatrist will understand. I know this is from 2011. I was first diagnosed w/ bipolar and now that I have a new psychiatrist she says it is more PTSD instead. I worked for a company for 7 years and then quit and went back. BIG MISTAKE! Didn’t want to loose what I had fought so hard to gain (knowledge in the medical office field) after comments that were unnecessary of a total of 12 months I ended up quitting, just didn’t go back. Received the letter from the today it upsets me but I am at peace with it and am ready to move on even if it means I have to let my career go. I refuse to go on disability and for 9 years now it has been nothing but a burden to my family.

  13. […] trauma can often be traced back to workplace bullying. The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment that takes one or more of the […]

  14. GC says:

    How true these comments all are. It is nice to say that legislation must come around. But belittling and ridiculing it is part of the bullying tactics and make it even more difficult to get away from it and to get the legislation. Meanwhile, for me it will be too late. My life has been devastated and turned into a hell by the post-traumatic stress disorder. I have just found it impossible to recover, when you think you get into calmer waters, another bully turns up. I have not experienced a single second of happiness in my life and it has been programmed to be that way by the bullies. I will not get a second life to make up for it. It is the perfect murder and it is actually a crime worse than murder, because when you are dead you no longer suffer, but they get away with it in strict impunity. The whole system has been engineered also by those in power and they will not easily drop the tool that is laying them golden eggs.

  15. Kasey fontana says:

    I have been changed forever by the trauma i experienced while emoloyed as the General Manager of a piano bar in Wichita. The sourceof the trauma came from the Assistant Manager spreading lies to ohr employees and the owners to get me fired. The abuse was so bad and the saddest thing was that I never believed the people that were trying to let me in on the wrongs this person was doing to me behind my back. I think the most painful thing is the fact that she woild sabotage my work and general succeas ofthe business and then call the owners who lived outof state and tell them of my “errors”… While pretending she cared for my well being and would spin it that she was “worried” about me…and that she could do a better job. I know this wouldnt have happened if my mom had not been dying of cancer while i paid forher bills. So all the lies and threats felt like being held prisoner in a situation with no hope. It was only through the grace of Jesus (through prayer) that he confirmed and told me not to trust A. Ledge*****. Spirit of withcraft at play.

  16. Nellie Bly says:

    It is a shame that an employer publicizes a Zero-Tolerance policy to sexual misconduct and related behavior and at the same time condones such violence during duty hours.

    The complaints are not reported thus making it appear the workplace is free from violence. Be careful when an employer is boasting such an achievement – it is a false front that is endangering the organization. Employees silently die off and move on to another job before they realize how sick they become. This mentality makes us all miserable. HR needs to implement more mental health and coaching strategies in the workplace AND accept criminal activity can occur in the workplace.

  17. Nellie Bly says:

    I blame the Clintons for condoning sexual assault in the workplace. What a shame that Hilary thinks she represents what women want. No woman enters the workplace begging to sexually assaulted and humiliated. Many cast her as such when she is vulnerable. I guess no man would even want to approach Hilary that way because maybe she does have a “schlong” after all? She is the proud wife of a sex offender. Do not let victims continue to speak silently just because we want to see a female President. I’d rather support a male candidate who turns transgender. Hilary is a liar and a cheater. I clearly endorse my own words…Proudly defending my rights as a U.S. Citizen under the Constitution.

  18. Simon Wadsworth says:

    I was bullied when I worked for a U.K. Multinational Chemical Company back in the years 1978 to 1981. The bosses there, subjected me to such profound, cruel bullying, mental cruelty and put downs that I had a nervous breakdown in 1981, and even now, 35 years later I am still suffering from complex PTSDs. I get severe anger bouts at the injustice that I suffered and I can actually throw my body up the room in a rage because of the immense injustice to which I was subjected by these bullies at work. I could not possible describe how horrific my suffering was at the hands of these vile people. When I was forced into handing in my notice because of the profound bullying, hostility and rejection pressure placed upon me, all the management along with the personnel department, all backed them up and I was made to look like the person who had the problem and responsibility for everything that happened at work and in regards to me leaving the Company. My beliefs in the Christian Faith were persecuted, my good name and self worth lay in the dust, and I was actually being negatively gossiped about in public places by some of these people. I did not know it, but I discovered in March 2016 that I had Asperger’s Syndrome coupled with Multiple Complex Traumas/PTSDs as a result of the multiple work place abuses, childhood traumas and social and career rejections.How I have survived down the years without self harming or even worse, disposing of myself, is an absolute miracle. I also lost my Mother recently and this has absolutely devastated me to the nth degree. I often wish that I could have had justice from this Company along with a number of other Companies who have abused me. It is wrong when one cannot get redress for wrongs suffered, especially when the perpetrators are not even bothered about what they have done or are otherwise so obtuse through their own self centered natures, that their thoughts do not extend beyond their own reralms of existence. People say that if a person does not file a legal case within 3 years then it is too late. The problem with this is that so often, the person who is injured with PTSDs is in no fit state to be able to file a law suit for many years in many instances. Let Justice prevail and the Laws be changed I say because this kind of Justice should not be allowed to prevail within any civilized Country of the World.


    • Colin says:

      Hi Simon,

      I’m real sorry you had to go through such abuse. I work in the school system and the environment of the last school I worked at was very toxic. I’m on FMLA leave (Family Medical Leave Act) but unfortunately it’s unpaid. I feel helpless, hopeless, and worn out like a disrag. I feel I can’t go back to work but I know I have to eventually. I wish you luck.

  19. […] don’t create unnecessary, repetitive traumas that could trigger PTSD or other anxiety disorders. Workplace bullying, including long-term derogatory treatment by managers, can lead to […]

  20. Adriaan says:

    I just created a website and community about C-PTSD recovery. For this, I am looking for experienced trauma therapists or counselors. I am creating a (free) list so members of the community have easier access to the right help.

    You find the website here and please leave your e-mail so I can contact you in the near future.

  21. RP says:

    People that abuse others need to have power and make themselves feel better about their own sad lives and want somebody else to feel worse then them.I suffered many years of abuse at my job everything from physical assaults 3 times to verbal assaults every single day for years.I managed to get mt boss fired and 2 others that were causing my issues at work. My immediate boss was the one that caused my issues with other employees my targeting me almost daily and giving praise to those who followed his plans of making my life hell. Told him many times to stop and control the other men at my job and every time he told me boys will be boys and said he and them would not stop. I told him then I will handle it then myself. He laughed and said go ahead ten the other employees came running to him crying about me then and saying I was to violent. I hate bullies to my core and now he is not my boss now it is his turn coming soon I am going to do everything I can to make him pay for those 10 years i dealt with all the bullying and only god forgives and I don’t. The 3 that attacked me found out the hard way not to pick on somebody and more to go but the best feeling is when they are begging you to forgive them. Rotten bastards I was never in my life filled with so much hate but I am now but getting even makes it go away little by little. Cowards when you turn on them and want to run to the police then. Funny after 10 years of abusing me my boss got a restraining against me after lying about me again but this time to the cops. I will see him in court soon and when he lies on the stand it will be my turn to punk and belittle him and rip his everything away that day. Confronting them is the only thing that makes me feel better. I am kind to mostly everybody except them but these people destroyed me inside and may they all burn in hell someday from a person with PTSD. BASTARDS PAYBACK IS A BITCH

  22. DominicaPTSDWork says:

    This article totally explains my situation. I have attended counseling or 8 years due to this kind of bullying. I am not even sure why this person disliked me so much when I was promoted to be his peer. He is now my boss and so far he has had me moved out of my senior role to another role, isolated me from my colleagues and vendors, and continues to divert me away from my work which causes me to not be able to achieve my goals. There should be more recognition around this kind of situation; it is very debilitating and harmful as well as cruel.

  23. CW says:

    I think that it should be a mandatory requirement for a person being put in any management position to first have a brain scan and a thorough psychological evaluation to make sure they aren’t psycho/sociopaths

  24. CD says:

    I too have experienced bullying…but by my staff! Yes, bullying goes up as well. Please remember that workplace bullying is not only perpetrated by employers or managers but by staff and employees. As a manager I had a total of 40 people ‘under’ me. A small group of 4 bullied me relentlessly for 2 years. I had very good working relationships with the other 36 staff and my own superiors, so knew it wasn’t me. I stuck it out and left not long after the last one of them left but, 9 years later, I still suffer from complex PTSD. With hindsight I should have ‘let them win’ and left the job ASAP. The emotional, physical and financial cost to me for the last 9 years has been huge!

  25. C Clay says:

    For what it is worth, I strongly support this diagnostic criteria for a diagnosis for the next edition of DSM for Complex PTSD. I developed these symtoms and still have them today following three years of incomprehensible workplace bullying at what was then called the Texas Department of Health from 1998-2001. My situation involved verbal assaults, eventually a sexual assault in the workplace, open hostility towards me because I was Roman Catholic, 40 years of age +, and primarily because I was a medical reserve officer in the military. Don’t hold out for ESGR, EEOC or the empmoyer’s HR Dept. to offer protection in the workplace even uf they investigate your situation. I was required to file a complaint by senior management. All participants were promoted then after a couple of months, I was fired. WBI’s DVD really helped me take a “step forward” in healing by helping me understand: a) I am not alone as a target (b) I fought hard and honorably, but, was very unlikely to have “won” against the aggression and (c) what ate the characteristics of those of us that will be selected as “targets”.

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