Researcher Loraleigh Keashly coined the term “emotional abuse at work” as a synonym for workplace bullying, says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). “All of one’s cognitive resources are deployed to cope with the psychological assault. In worst cases, there is trauma that must be dealt with. In all cases, the target is stigmatized, and social relations with coworkers strained…. Bullying triggers distress, the human stress response in reaction to the bully’s tactics, the stressors. If left unabated, prolonged distress leads to stress-related diseases, all sorts of health complications.”
How to mitigate against the negativity of workplace bullying
“The most effective stress mitigation factor is social support. Validating human support can reverse the deleterious effects of emotional abuse,” says WBI. “Isolation exacerbates the distress. Sometimes learning about the first-time experience can alleviate distress. After all, bullying is rather ambiguous when first experienced.”
“WBI research found that for 33 percent of bullied targets, their bullying at work was the first abuse ever experienced in their lives. Those people take the longest to recognize [the workplace bullying]…. Though prior history alone does not guarantee instant recognition and labeling of the emotional abuse happening to them [others], …visceral reactions become cues to recognition. They have ‘been there before’ with respect to the emotional negativity; they have known fear, apprehension, and anxiety,” adds WBI.
What made workplace bullying targets feel better
In their 2014 poll, the WBI found these sources of support to move from negative to positive emotions in order of popularity:
- Family and friends (especially spouse)
- No one
- External support — both impersonal (websites, social media) and personal (counselors, physicians)
- The workplace (peers, managers, and HR)
Key findings include:
- Friends outside work ranked lower than “no one.” Negativity can push away friends who do not want to empathize. “Bullying creates distance between friends just when targets need support the most,” says WBI.
- For some, it’s not that no one tried to help. “For 28 percent of targets, no one successfully offset the negative emotions from bullying,” explains WBI. “For half of that group, the reason was the dominance of the negativity over someone’s attempt to get the target into a positive mood. It probably speaks more to the power of bullying rather than the failure of others’ attempts to make something positive out of something so dark. The saddest part is the 14 percent of targets who reported that there was no one in their lives attempting to bring hope and positivity.”
- Health professionals (counselors and physicians) credited with providing so much emotional support means public awareness about workplace bullying is rising. “Therapists are starting to understand the devastating, potentially traumatizing effect toxic workplaces have on their clients. They are now less likely to blame victims as they once did,” says WBI. “Physicians have been more sympathetic to patients suffering debilitating stress. Doctors recognize the health impact of distress better than others. Mental health professionals and medical doctors can help bring hope, and thus positive emotions, to targets simply by validating the reality of their experience. Telling targets that they are not crazy or imagining their experiences provides the emotional boost.”
- Peer coworkers are less helpful than friends outside work. Coworkers isolate targets out of fear of being targeted themselves, explaining why coworkers fall lower in rank than friends outside work.
- Managers are more helpful than HR. Human resources provides positive results for targets in less than two percent of cases.
“Registering emotional change requires human contact — touch, hugs, embrace. You can’t get that through websites, no matter how informative. Information is cognitive. Emotions are full body experiences — physiological arousal, the label of emotions, cognitions, conscious and unconscious thought, all experienced in a social context,” explains WBI.