If you spend your workday avoiding an abusive boss, tiptoeing around co-workers who talk behind your back, or eating lunch alone because you've been ostracized from your cubicle mates, you may be the victim of workplace bullying. New research suggests that you're not alone, especially if you're struggling to cope.
Employees with abusive bosses often deal with the situation in ways that inadvertently make them feel worse, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Stress Management. That's bad news, as research suggests that workplace abuse is linked to stress — and stress is linked to a laundry list of mental and physical ailments, including higher body weight and heart disease.
In at least one extreme case, workplace bullying has even been linked to suicide, much as schoolyard bullying has been linked to a rash of suicides among young people.
Bullying is "a form of abuse which carries tremendous health harm," said Gary Namie, a social psychologist who directs the Workplace Bullying Institute. "That's how you distinguish it from tough management or any of the other cutesy ways people use to diminish it."
Struggle to cope
Namie was not involved in the new study, which surveyed nearly 500 employees about how they dealt with abusive supervision. Abusive supervisors are bosses who humiliate and insult their employees, never let them forget their mistakes, break promises and isolate employees from other co-workers, study author Dana Yagil of the University of Haifa in Israel told LiveScience.
About 13 to 14 percent of Americans work under an abusive supervisor, Yagil said. Her study on Israeli workers found that abused employees tend to cope by avoiding their bosses, seeking support from co-workers and trying to reassure themselves. As useful as those strategies might sound, however, they actually made employees feel worse. [7 Thoughts That Are Bad For You]
"It is understandable that employees wish to reduce the amount of their contact with an abusive boss to the minimum, but the strategies they use actually further increase their stress instead of reducing it," Yagil said. "This may happen because these strategies are associated with a sense of weakness and perpetuate the employee's fear of the supervisor."
Avoiding a workplace bully might seem easier than avoiding a school bully, given that employees can quit their jobs. But workers get caught in a cycle of stress, Namie said. An online survey of targeted workers by the WBI found that they put up with the abuse for an average of 22 months.
The stress of the bullying may itself lead to bad decision-making, Namie said. A 2009 study in the journal Science found that stressed-out rats fail to adapt to changes in their environment. A portion of the stressed rats' brains, the dorsomedial striatum, actually shrunk compared with that region in relaxed rats. The findings suggest that stress may actually re-wire the brain, creating a decision-making rut. The same may occur in bullied workers, Namie said.
"This is why a person can't make quality decisions," he said. "They can't even consider alternatives. Just like a battered spouse, they don't even perceive alternatives to their situations when they're stressed and depressed and under attack."
Sometimes this cycle ends with tragedy. Namie works as an expert legal witness on bullying. In one upcoming case, he said, a woman put up with daily barrages of screaming abuse from her boss for a year. By the end, she was working 18-hour days, trying to shield the employees under her from her boss' tyranny, Namie said. Finally, she and several of her co-workers put together a 25-page complaint to human resources. Nothing happened, until she was called in for a meeting with senior management. The woman knew she would be fired for making the complaint, Namie said.
"Rather than allowing herself to be terminated, she bought a pistol, went to work, left three suicide notes, and she took her own life at work," he said.
"She was like that rat stuck in a rut," he added. "She didn't see any alternative at that point."
Why bullying happens
While all workplace-bullying cases are not so extreme, it does seem to be a common problem, said Sandy Herschcovis, a professor of business administration at the University of Manitoba who studies workplace aggression. Between 70 and 80 percent of Americans report rudeness and incivility at work, Herschcovis told LiveScience. Fewer are systematically bullied, she said, but the best estimate puts the number at about 41 percent of American workers having been psychologically harassed at work at some point.
Hierarchical organizations such as the military tend to have higher rates of bullying, Herschcovis said, as do places where the environment is highly competitive.
"Definitely the organizational context contributes," Herschcovis said.
The personality of the bully is often key, with some research suggesting that childhood bullies become bullies as adults, she said. Targets of bullying are often socially anxious, have low self-esteem, or have personality traits such as narcissism, Herschcovis said. "We don't want to blame the victim, but we recognize this more and more as a relationship" between the bully and the target, she said.
Little research has been done on how to deal with abusive bosses or bullying co-workers. In mild cases, where a boss may not realize how their behavior is coming across, direct confrontation might work, Yagil said. One research-based program that seems to have potential is called the Civility, Respect and Engagement at Work project, Herschcovis said. That program has been shown to improve workplace civility, reduce cynicism and improve job satisfaction and trust among employees, she said. The program has employees discuss rudeness and incivility in their workplace and make plans to improve. [8 Tactics to Bust the Office Bully]
For workers experiencing bullying, Herschcovis recommended reporting specific behavior to higher-ups, as well as examining one's own behavior. Sometimes victims inadvertently contribute to the bullying relationship, she said. Namie cautioned that victims should proceed with care, however, as there are no anti-bullying workplace laws on the books in the U.S.
"HR [human resources] has no power or clout to make senior management stop," Namie said. "Without the laws, they're not mandated to make policies, and without the mandate, they don’t know what to do."
Since 2003, 21 states have introduced some version of anti-bullying bills, but none have yet passed. Twelve states have legislation pending in 2012, according to healthyworkplacebill.org.
In the meantime, Herschcovis and her colleagues have found that bystanders in the workplace are usually sympathetic to the victim rather than the bully.
"Outside parties are most likely to want to intervene, and to be in a position to intervene," Herschcovis said. The trick, she added, will be to find ways to encourage co-workers to stand up for one another.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.