New study shows that prolonged exposure to workplace bullying can lead to suicide – and it can happen to anyone

Bullying concept in workplace with angry and afraid eggs charact

Researchers have finally found that workplace bullies can drive their targets to suicide. In fact, the study published in the American Journal of Public Health last September revealed that bullied targets are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who were never bullied. Pioneer Heinz Leymann estimated that 10 percent of those bullied take their lives, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) article “The very real link between workplace bullying and suicide: Twice as likely to contemplate suicide.”

Researchers defined bullying as harassment, badgering, and freezing out that:

  • Occurred repeatedly over a period of time.
  • Involved two parties in which one had a higher ranking than the other.

It happens so often that there’s now a term for it. “Bullycide” happens when the cause of suicide is attributable to the victim having been bullied.

How workplace bullying can lead any of us to suicide (“bullycide”)

Researchers also tested to see if qualities of workplace bullying targets warranted uninvited psychological assaults. They found nothing: zero data to support reason to blame the victim. In other words, targets are not simply those with exploited weakness.

In fact, evidence shows the opposite. Targets are often high performing, highly ethical employees whose competence poses a threat to their low performing, low ethical bosses. The bully’s only real motivator is to battle the target while having the upper hand – an unethical tactic used to uphold the image they long for but are unable to get through competence:

  • They abuse their power. They care about hurting, manipulating, controlling, and eliminating the target (generally after two years after the employee’s start date). They are kiss up, kick down managers who are masters of deception.
  • They deceive others into thinking the target is the problem. They use the emotional abuse they caused to convince others that the target is mentally ill, setting the stage for mobbing, in which coworkers join in to isolate the target.

A bully’s typical recipe:

  1. The bully initially repeatedly reprimands the better than average target for trivial matters and those that would be described completely differently by the target. The bully repeatedly puts the target down.
  2. The bully convinces others that the target is incompetent, so others can begin to shun the target and unwittingly participate in the emotional abuse.
  3. The bully drives the target to go to report the problem to the bully’s boss or to Human Resources and then escalates the bully behavior.
  4. The bully makes their tactics so outrageous that the target’s support system (family and friends) doesn’t believe the target and can’t offer advice. Then these family and friends become tired of hearing the target obsessively repeat issues that can’t be resolved.
  5. The target is now very much alone and increasingly vulnerable to suicide. Targets try everything and then give up hope. If not stopped, the prolonged abuse causes depression and often suicidal thoughts. “Targets who sense that they’re about to be fired and cannot cope with that eventuality are vulnerable to suicide,” adds reporter Natasha Wallace in her article  “Suicide, When Related to Workplace Bullying.”

“There is a body of research identifying bullied targets as more emotional than others. But anxious personalities are not rare in our society. Witness the prevalence of anti-depressant drugs prescribed,” says WBI.

Our false perceptions of suicide

The public often finds fault with the people who take their lives. And mental health folks rarely understand the severity of abusive conduct at work’s effect on targets’ lives, so they discount the contribution of abuse at work and instead point to family and financial matters as root cause.

But the reality is that workplace bullying can cause a target to abandon hope over time, to not see a future or alternatives. Abuse tactics are often so outrageous that no one believes the target when a bully attacks. They think the target must have done something wrong or exaggerates. Then abandonment by coworkers and impatience of family members and friends lead to utter loneliness and despair. When everything they try fails, they lose all hope. “Bullying causes severe health harm, much more acute than is experienced by those sexually harassed. Anxiety (80%); panic attacks (52%); depression (49%); PTSD diagnosis (30%); suffering intrusive thoughts/flashbacks (50%); sleep disorders (77%); hypertension (59%) to name some of the negative health consequences,” adds the WBI.

These responses are the natural. “Depression is caused by the unremitting abusive conduct. And their lives unravel if it is not stopped…. It is the nature of the human stress response. With prolonged exposure to distress, changes in the brain occur. Thanks to modern neuroscience studies of social phenomena like ostracism, stress, and bullying, we know that atrophy of key areas of the brain impair decision making. Thus, it is highly likely that a brain flooded with steroidal glucocorticoids is not capable of clear, rational thinking. Suicide is the result of the failure to imagine alternatives to one’s current reality,” adds WBI.

All health harm from bullying is attributable to prolonged exposure. “Ending the distress allows the person to recover. The brain literally ‘heals’ thanks to its property of plasticity. Restored gray matter volume brings back lost cognitive abilities — better decision making, optimism, a visualized future,” says WBI.

Though a family won more than $10 million in a private settlement for the bullying of a worker who committed suicide, there is no law to hold bullies legally accountable.

How you can help

  • If you know of a workplace bullying-related suicide, privately share it with us. Email info@mahealthyworkplace.com with the story so we can share the impact of workplace bullying with key decision makers.
  • Call your state legislators. This two-year legislative session ends this summer, and state reps are not making the bill a priority. That’s where you come in. We urgently ask you to contact Chairman of Bills & Third Reading Theodore Speliotis (617-722-2410, Theodore.Speliotis@mahouse.gov) to ask him to release House Bill 1771 for Third Reading. (The Third Reading is a floor vote and the biggest hurdle of the entire process.) It’s just as helpful to also contact your own rep to ask him or her to both support the bill and contact Rep. Speliotis.

If you are considering harming yourself or need immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Help prevent another suicide caused by an incompetent boss.

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8 comments

  1. affirmandpromote

    Bleek information yet some critical points of affirmation. After going through being bullied at work it is so easy to fall back on self shame and blame making those findings that place the blame and agency back on the perpetrator are life giving in nature.

  2. Carol Fehner

    This research is solid. I knew 9 people who committed suicide because of bullying at SSA. Many more were stopped by intervention and 72 hour holds to try to deal with the problems. In addition to the suicides, many more have suffered the health affects from bullying that can and probably does kill them. No one needs to exchange their health and life for a job!

  3. familytreegirl

    Reblogged this on bullying in the workplace and commented:
    Another opportunity for organizations to view the cost of bullying. MA really wants to pass a bill. This article brings out excellence points. I ask now, why is there not a law to prevent this action. My study agrees with these finding and also shows information from a witnesses prospective. Google Bullying in the Workplace: A Phenomenological Study by Dr. Shelley Viola Murphy.

  4. Sean Taylor

    I am from the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. I was severely work placed bullied and relate to this article. I attempted to jump out of a car traveling 100kms down the M1, because the bullying I went through was so intense. No-one listened to me and no-one in the workplace helped me. Except they tried to make out that I had a mental problem. They were the cause of it. So thank you for your research into this topic. Employers need to be made accountable for work place bullying.

  5. Thomas Panetta

    Keep in mind……. observers of workplace bullying can also have problems dealing with it! Just like second hand smoke kills people. Second hand workplace bullying can also push people who observed the callous, indignant, and inhuman treatment of another human being. The observation of the abuse can cause them to commit 2nd hand bullycide to end their misery of what they are witnessing. Is it the fact they fell helpless in aiding their targeted co-worker? Is it the quilt from just standing by and doing nothing in fear of what might happen to them? Is it a person who has the gift of empathy that are shattered by this social injustice? Whatever it is……workplace bullying needs to stop. There is to much hate in this world. I was a union representative during a time an ill-conceived productivity plan was enacted that pitted everyone against everyone else. I was bullied relentlessly for many years, they could turn it on and turn it off as management pleased. I was called a trouble maker and was told by my manager that I had a target on my back! Productivity trumped all while a myriad of roadblocks and rules were implemented. Like I read on one of these no bullying sites…..it was the ill-logical nature of the plan that created the stressors that created the toxic workplace environment. It came to the point I called my union halls main office and told them that someone was going to do something stupid. Within 6 months the first of three suicides occurred that spanned a two year period of time.(3 white men in their 40’s) I witnessed the scorn of workplace bullying first hand and have traced some of the tactics used against me back to the times of Nazi Germany! Research the word zersetzung……for it is being taught on our college campuses by union busting professors who are being paid by corporate America! Human Resource consultants are deeply involved(period)

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