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.

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