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Workplace bullying is a term used to describe a range of aggressive behaviors designed to intimidate, threaten, humiliate or sabotage co-workers or employees in a job or workplace setting. These behaviors act as a rough adult counterpart to the bullying activities that occur in middle school, high school, or college settings. Several modern studies link exposure to workplace bullying to increased risks for serious forms of mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression. These risks appear in the direct victims of job-related bullying, as well as in bystanders who witness bullying activities perpetrated against others.

Workplace Bullying Basics

Some of the bullying that takes place in workplace settings corresponds more or less directly to the forms of verbal and social harassment that appear in bullying incidents among school-aged children and young adults. However, workplace bullying can also appear in different forms that reflect the rules and regulations that typically govern on-the-job conduct. Whatever the specific form that bullying takes, its general form typically remains the same: conscious intimidation or abuse that’s designed to destabilize other people’s work environments, prevent or slow the advancement of others, and protect the opportunities, priorities or current status of the person doing the bullying.

While there is no generally accepted definition of what constitutes bullying in all workplace settings, a number of tactics can be construed as bullying behaviors when used in certain contexts. Examples of these tactics include personally insulting others, insulting the quality of others’ job-related contributions, blaming others for one’s own workplace mistakes, taking credit for the work or ideas of others, arbitrarily applying workplace rules, intentionally sabotaging other people’s work, refusing to communicate with others or include them in relevant work-related discussions, making false accusations against others, “throwing tantrums” in front of employees, using specific work assignments as a form of punishment, and placing unrealistic demands on isolated employees or groups of employees.


In 2007, the Workplace Bullying Institute and a national polling organization called Zogby International conducted a nationwide survey designed to assess bullying trends in the workplace. They concluded that 37 percent of employees in the U.S. directly experience workplace bullying or experienced bullying at some point in their work history. Another 12 percent reported witnessing incidents of bullying that involved others. Men act as bullies significantly more often than women, and women are exposed to bullying significantly more frequently than men. Interestingly, women bully other women more often than men bully women. Most of the people who engage in bullying choose their employees as the targets of their intimidating and/or abusive behaviors.

Bullying and Mental Illness

In a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, a team of researchers from the University of Helsinki used survey information from almost 7,000 individuals to examine the statistical connections between job-related bullying and the risks for the onset of mental illness. They concluded that both men and women directly affected by workplace bullying for a minimum of five to seven years have clearly increased risks for developing a diagnosable psychiatric disorder. In addition, they concluded that men and women who directly experienced serious workplace bullying at some point in the past also have significant, but smaller, increases in their mental illness risks.

In another study, published in 2012 in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, a team of Swedish researchers concluded that men act as bystanders to workplace bullying incidents more frequently than women. However, when compared to their male counterparts, women bystanders have markedly increased risks for developing symptoms of major depression within an 18-month period following a triggering bullying event. Only roughly 16 percent of male bystanders develop depression symptoms in this timeframe, while slightly more than 33 percent of female bystanders develop these symptoms.

In a third study, published in 2012 in the journal BMJ Open, a group of researchers from the University of Helsinki examined the use of mental health medications such as antidepressants, sedatives, and tranquilizers in over 6,000 people who were either directly exposed to workplace bullying or witnessed the bullying behaviors of their bosses or co-workers. These researchers concluded that women directly exposed to workplace bullying take mental health medications 50 percent more frequently than women not exposed to bullying; women who witness bullying experience a similar increase in their use of these medications.  Men directly exposed to workplace bullying take mental health medications fully twice as often as men not exposed to bullying; men who witness bullying also increase their use of these medications by roughly the same amount.

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