Impact of Workplace Bullying
on Family

Displacement, Withdrawal, Anxiety & Despondency

The most obvious and direct impact is displacement of the target’s anger and shame about being bullied at work onto the family at home. This is akin to the coming home and “kicking the dog.” When anger can’t be leveled against the source of frustration and humiliation, the bully at work, especially when the bully is a boss, often the only outlet is outside work. The difficulty of confronting-stopping a boss is traced to the historical uphill battle to cross the “power gradient.” Telling a boss to go to hell brings certain retaliation. It’s part of our hierarchical world.

By the way, displacement could occur on the way home. Pity other drivers on the commute home or wait staff at restaurants at lunchtime who might be in harm’s way. Nevertheless, most workers exposed to abusive supervision tend to bring it home. Violence at work begets violence at home.

Much more common is emotional withdrawal. Targets are overwhelmed by emotional abuse and exhausted at work. It takes all energy they can muster just to survive the 8 to 10 hours and commute to home. The stress strips away their appetite. So, they come home, skip dinner, and retire to bed seeking protection that sleep might provide. Sadly, sleep is disrupted by the distress caused by bullying. Solid REM sleep is rarely enjoyed. Sleep deficits make the targeted family member a non-participant, especially weekends. Traditions and family routines get postponed or abandoned completely. Everyone’s schedules are changed to accommodate the wounded worker in the family. This builds resentment. But targets who do not seek counseling or have their bullying situations reversed are trapped in a sleepless withdrawal loop.

Bullied targets also bring home anxiety. This is a normal reaction to the personalized stressors that bullying poses — domination, intimidation and humiliation. Even for individuals who have never experienced abuse (33% of workplace bullying targets), bullying fosters anxiety, the forewarning of distress. Distress, in turn, causes many stress-related health problems for targets. The point is that the anxiety is seen and felt by all family members exposed directly to it.

The inability to stop the bullying by the targeted parent creates a sense of despondency. The unhelpful reactions of coworkers further worsens the feeling. Thus, coming home is the message that mother or father or lover or wife or husband, once an integrated adult, is falling apart, suddenly powerless.

The coupling of anxiety and despondency is a toxic stew that affects the mood at home. Prolonged exposure renders both adults and children vulnerable to long-term effects from situations over which no one at home can control.

Spouses & Partners

The wrath heaped upon spouses and partners is the worst. Because of the shame, targets wait (unsuccessfully) for their situations to resolve themselves, and delay sharing details with their loved ones. Therefore, the unexpected emotional dumping catches partners off guard. They often do not know the underlying reason. Female partners are especially vulnerable to domestic violence — physical and emotional. Male partners at home could be subjected to emotional abuse (and some physical abuse). In any form, the violence teaches the children inappropriate ways to cope with stress.

For this reason, bullying can drive a wedge between partners. Separations and divorces result. From an early WBI survey we learned that women partners of bullied workers stayed longer in relationships than men did.

Seek couples counseling from a therapist who understands trauma — not just family dynamics. Though the experiences are vicarious, and not direct, the trauma is just as real for spouses and partners.

Of course, couples can be forced closer together to survive the emotional crises that bullying visits on them. Cohesion is high, but stress is doubled. Most of the stress comes from the impending loss of economic security. It is all worsened if the bullied partner is the sole wage earner for the family. Apprehension of facing destitution is distressful for everyone. Given the high probability that the target will lose her or his job, the fear is not imaginary. Bully bosses constantly threaten to end targets' job and hopes of finding the next job, which is dependent on a good referral from a supervisor. It is way too much control by one person over the life of another human being.

Spouses and partners aware of the bullying experience helplessness from not being able to stop it. They vicariously experience the emotional strain but cannot control its intensity or exposure time. They cannot intervene at work. They stand by watching their afflicted mate spiral down into an emotional morass with little they can do to help. Most partners try to stay positive, attempting to convince their targeted mate to be similarly positive. Eventually, even intimate others tire of rejected suggestions, their inability to make a difference, and attempts to protect the children. If the bullying does not stop, even the most loyal loving partner considers ending the relationship.


Adult children, of course, will be affected like the non-targeted parent, if still living at home. Adult children in college or in the workforce will be capable of providing support to the bullied parent. The only possibility of harm from child to parent happens in the case of disbelief. As with coworkers or anyone listening to the bullied target’s story, a child not treating the reported experience as credible is particularly debilitating to the parent.

Children old enough to be deprived of quality time with the bullied parent will voice their resentment and anger. That compounds the target’s guilt. Now, guilt compounds the already present shame. However, for the child, it is somewhat more healthy to express her or his negative feelings.

Young children should not be expected to understand the reason for the bullied parent’s behavioral or emotional changes. In fact, rarely do targets and spouses understand. They must be shielded and protected. The greatest danger, short of the risk of violence, is that the bullied parent’s withdrawal deprives the developing child of the much needed intimate relationship with that parent. If the bullied parent is not the one who deprives the child of the security of emotional acceptance, the other parent must work doubly hard to not allow tending to the partner lead to an inadvertent deprivation. Research demonstrates clearly that parental emotional deprivation leads to neurological deficits in the ability to experience or express empathy and compassion for others. In other words, young children in households invaded by workplace bullying may become socially impaired as a result.

Finally, young children will also absorb the prevalent emotional climate in the home. If it is unbounded optimism, acceptance and love, they will be healthy adults. If, instead, it is a feeling of anxiety, they will develop an unhealthy level of neuroticism. They become less resistant to life stressors, more likely to manifest fear, anxiety, depression and mood disorders. Instead of developing resilience, they are sensitive or hypersensitive. They become more prone to be bullied in school, in the workplace and in relationships.

The Scourge of Co-Dependency

A family with a parent bullied at work is akin to a dysfunctional family with a member suffering alcoholism or substance addiction or emotional trauma. Everyone avoids engagement with the afflicted person. They learn to walk on “eggshells” lest they trigger emotional episodes. They subordinate their own needs to those of the “special person” in the family. They learn to communicate in code. They speak “around” the person they fear directly confronting. They learn to be so good at indirect communication, they never learn, in the case of young children, or forget, in the case of adults, how to be clear and direct about what they personally want and need. Truthfulness is sacrificed for the sake of survival. Timidity replaces courage. Fear dominates. It becomes a way of life. It’s no way for children to grow up healthy and emotionally confident and strong.

As adults, a co-dependent “worldview” accepts abuse as normal routine. Co-dependent people never challenge institutions that threaten their identity. They do not become the change agents. Instead, they are the silent compliant ones who enable the abusive conduct of others.

Co-dependents become the do-nothing witnesses to injustice in our world that stand idly by, preferring to lurk in the shadows they think will protect them from being future targets.


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