It’s All Fun and Games Until You’ve Created a Hostile Work Environment: How Workplace Bullying is Linked to Mental Health

Key Points:

  1. Workplace bullying has been linked to negative outcomes of health and mental illness.
  2. Although depression, anxiety, stress, and burnout were all associated with being bullied. Symptoms of depression were most consistently.
  3. Anxiety and stress fall into two categories: Generalized anxiety and PTSD, which had stronger relationships with workplace bullying. Similarly, burnout symptoms were much stronger than general stress-related complaints.”
  4. Anxiety and stress (but not depression symptoms) seemed to also predict being a victim of bullying at work later.

COVID brought the importance of mental wellness to people’s attention. Increasing symptoms of mental illness and burnout showed up among some people’s friends, family, and coworkers. One in five people will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, with many others that may be undiagnosed or under the threshold. This all puts them at more risk of mental disorders like anxiety and depression. Many studies find destructive effects of work environments on physical health like hypertension, obesity, and diabetes; not many study the work environment link with mental illness.

Evidence suggests work’s role in mental illness is substantial, on their health similar to their income and standard of living. Studies show 33% of people with mood disorders reported diagnoses associated with their work, a logical outcome of toxic work environments.

Bullying is one toxic work-related factor linked to outcomes of health and mental illness. Workplace bullying may be an abuse of supervision, task-oriented bullying (e.g., excessive monitoring and criticism), or personally directed abuse (e.g., negligence or excluding others at work). Workplace bullying is common, impacting 2-30% of the total population. It’s harmful to individuals and organizations; being victimized is a source of stress, damages self-esteem, and harms productivity; it eats away at commitment to their workplaces, harms physical health, and causes people to take more time off; and it contributes to chronic health conditions like stress-induced hypertension.

With all this in mind, Bart Verkuil, Serpil Atasayi, and Marc L. Molendijk meta-analyzed the relationship between workplace bullying and mental illness. Their research addressed mental health issues and their relationship with bullying at work. They focused on depression, anxiety (including PTSD), stress, and burnout, studying cross-sectional data (data at a single point in time) and longitudinal data (data tracking the same people over time). This allowed the scientists to examine if bullying caused mental illness or vice-versa. Their study had 65 cross-sectional effect sizes and 26 longitudinal effect sizes across 48 total studies, with data from 167,520 participants from many different occupations. They showed a positive link between bullying at work and victims’ mental disorder symptoms. Over time, bullying caused mental illness symptoms. This ia a call to action for leaders to limit bullying and incivility, protect health, and optimize organizational success. Bullying and employee physical and mental illness have huge costs to organizations – and they tend to happen together.

Verkuil and team found a moderate, positive relationship between workplace bullying and mental illness. More specifically, symptoms of depression were more consistently related to bullying than anxiety, stress, or burnout were. Anxiety and stress fall into two categories: Generalized anxiety and PTSD, which had stronger relationships with workplace bullying. Similarly, burnout symptoms were much stronger than general stress-related complaints.  The link between workplace bullying and burnout was large, stronger than other mental disorders. Bullying was a substantial predictor of depression, anxiety, stress, and, most of all, work-related burnout. This shows the negative impact of bullying, which impacts 1:50 to 3:10 employees’ health and work productivity.

Looking at data over time, there was a small, positive effect between exposure to bullying at work and symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. Surprisingly, anxiety or stress (but not depression symptoms) seemed to also predict being a victim of bullying at work later. However, these findings of mental illness causing bullying were based on a much smaller sample than the opposite. So, mental illness leading to exposure to bullying is less certain.

Being bullied at work causes stress and this stress can impact our overall wellness. Emotional damage can harm our bodies and minds as it impacts our body chemistry, our nervous and immune systems. Experiencing anxiety and stress may make you slightly more likely to be targeted as a victim of bullying. The emotional damage from being bullied can last; these hurtful and embarrassing events can take root in people’s minds and replay, causing prolonged harm.  This rumination can impact how we value ourselves. This extends the stress and speeds up emotional exhaustion, a primary symptom of mental illnesses (for example, depression) and costly organizational problems (for example, burnout).

Generally speaking, this research was well done. It used many different studies and explored whether one variable may have caused another. The results confirmed other meta-analyses on the subject. The data allowed for exploring many alternatives. Finally, these effects were not impacted by people’s age, work type, their gender, the year of scientific publication, and the course of time. There was no evidence of publication bias or a single study overpowering all others. This suggests the effects they documented are likely to similarly apply to most people.

The study wasn’t perfect. Given the findings, people who reported mental health issues as a result from workplace bullying may have been bullied and had adversity in childhood. This longer history of bullying may predispose them to mental illness. Stress early in life can produce compounded stress later in life: this is called “stress proliferation”. Stress proliferation is supported by research: 40% of mistreated children were later subjected to bullying by peers in adulthood. Future research could account for people’s history of victimization. Also, these data were generally self-reported; so it may be slightly biased or inaccurate.

The consistent finding here is: workplace bullying is an important predictor of depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress-related psychological complaints and vice-versa. Leaders and organizations can prevent and rapidly address bullying. This is critical to preserve an organization’s bottom line and is vitally important for healthy, safe, and legal work environments.

Takeaways for you and your practice

Based on this research, managers and leaders can take the following practical recommendations to improve mental wellness and reduce the risk of mental illness and burnout among their employees:

  1. Limit bullying and incivility in the workplace. Workplace bullying can cause direct harm to employees’ mental health and lead to mental disorder symptoms. Leaders should ensure that all employees are treated with respect and dignity, and create a safe and supportive environment. This means holding people accountable for their actions and protecting those who stand a greater liklihood of being victimized (such as those with elevated anxiety and stress).
  2. Focus on reducing depression, which is more consistently related to bullying than anxiety, stress, or burnout. Leaders should pay special attention to employees who show signs of depression and offer support to help them manage their symptoms.
  3. Encourage employees to seek help for mental health issues. Leaders can provide access to resources and support for employees who may be experiencing mental health issues. They should promote awareness and education about mental health and encourage employees to speak up if they need help.
  4. Provide stress-management resources and strategies. Leaders should encourage employees to take breaks and set boundaries to help manage stress. They can offer stress-management programs or resources, such as meditation or yoga classes, to support employees’ mental health.
  5. Monitor employee mental wellness. Leaders should keep an eye out for signs of mental illness or burnout among their employees, such as decreased productivity, absenteeism, or increased conflicts. They should have open and honest conversations with their employees about their mental health and wellbeing and offer support when needed.

By implementing these practical recommendations, leaders can help promote a mentally healthy workplace that supports the well-being of all employees, reduces the risk of mental illness, and improves organizational success.

Trustworthiness score:

The trustworthiness of the study is of a moderate standard and quality (80%). This means there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for the effect found are possible.

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Verkuil, B., Atasayi, S., & Molendijk, M. L. (2015). Workplace bullying and mental health: a meta-analysis on cross-sectional and longitudinal data. PloS one10(8), e0135225.

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