September 25th, 2012

Workplace Bullying Witnesses Suffer Depression: Swedish Study

In a just published large sample (n=4,238) study across four Swedish industries — paper mills, steel factory and truck manufacturer — researchers from the government’s Institute of Environmental Medicine followed witnesses to workplace bullying for 18 months. At the end of the measurement period, women witnesses showed a higher prevalence of clinical depression (33.3%) than did men witnesses (16.4%).

This study clearly showed that exposure to bullying, a vicarious experience for witnesses, is a significant risk factor in developing depression from negative conditions in the workplace. That’s the major finding from the study.

A rather esoteric finding by the authors surprised us. For over 40 years occupational health researchers have studied “job strain.” WBI colleague Peter Schnall, MD at the Center for Social Epidemiology in Southern California, is one of those investigators. Job strain is what results when a worker simultaneously experiences an increased task demand and a reduction in the possible amount of control over personal outcomes. Do more with less control. Job strain causes health harm, specifically cardiovascular diseases.

Compared to bullying, job strain is typically a milder stressor. This new Swedish study also measured job strain and found it operated entirely statistically independently from workplace bullying. That means that the two are separate and different phenomena. Before this study, we have characterized job strain and bullying on the same continuum of negative work conditions. Taking into account this finding, perhaps they are as different as apples and oranges.

The research article:
R. Emdad, A. Alipour, J. Hagberg, & I. B. Jensen (2012) The impact of bystanding to workplace bullying on symptoms of depression among women and men in industry in Sweden: an empirical and theoretical longitudinal study. International Archives of Occupational & Environmental Health, DOI 10.1007/s00420-012-0813-1. Download the full report.


No one invites bullying on themselves. Targets certainly do not deserve the mistreatment aimed at them by bullies. Unfortunately, witnessing coworkers are also unable to control the situation, leading to an original helplessness felt when they either cannot or will not come to the target’s rescue worsened when the bully recruits coworkers’ support to turn against the target.

We’d feel more sorry for coworkers except that WBI research on the sometimes shameless abandonment of targets by coworkers is reliably disappointing. We believe that much bullying could be nipped in the bud by brave coworkers. We’re not naive, however. There is a huge body of scholarly research on bystander non-intervention and dysfunctional group dynamics that can explain why coworkers do nothing to help their bullied colleagues.


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 at 5:12 pm and is filed under Bullying & Health, Bullying-Related Research, Social/Mgmt/Epid Sciences, WBI Education. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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