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Psychological abuse often leads to psychological injury

Workplace psychological abuse is about power and control

Something’s off, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. You expect your boss and co-workers to support you to do the work you were hired to do and expect to be treated with dignity and respect.

But that’s not what's happening. Your boss or co-worker talks down to you. It seems you can’t say or do anything right. Your boss falsely accuses you, isolates you, or sabotages your job or career.

You've been targeted by a workplace bully.

You try to please the abuser or try to figure out how you need to change. But nothing works. The abuse continues. The bully is threatened by your competence, social skills, and any other good qualities you have. They either keep you immobilized under their thumb or do everything in their power to get rid of you.

You want to respectfully confront the abuser and tell them their behavior is unacceptable but are afraid they'll come back at you even harder next time. The power imbalance silences you into submission to keep the peace and your paycheck.

The bully doesn’t let up, and you report the problem to management. You expect the organization to intervene and either discipline or get rid of the abuser, but neither happen. Delay after delay. Nothing is ever done about the bully. Something isn’t off. Everything is off.

You're in a toxic work environment.

For the majority of targeted and victimized employees, the psychological abuse doesn’t stop until they leave. If toxic workplace behavior isn’t dealt with effectively in the short term, employees are likely in a toxic work environment — where higher-ups prioritize avoiding corporate liability over human well-being.

Employers aren’t currently liable for the psychological safety of their employees — nor do they want to be. So the employer further abuses the employee with a willful blindness and deafness to the problem (mobbing). They choose to ignore the problem and make reporting employees go away instead.

In toxic work environments, employers deceive and conspire against employees who report abuse to avoid the threat of liability. If employees fight them, they fight harder. With legal resources at their fingertips, they win most of the time with illegal discrimination. The mission of mobbing aka organizational bullying is to break you psychologically, leaving no fingerprints.

There are three typical outcomes for bullied and mobbed employees:

  1. They leave voluntarily from the incompetence of the bully, the overall toxic culture, and/or the significant health harm from the abuse that has immobilized them after remaining under the silent killer stress waiting for organizational resolve that is willfully denied.
  2. They are fired by the employer because they can no longer perform their duties due to the significant health harm.
  3. They die from the stress.

These inhumane workplace practices violate basic human rights without account. The majority of targeted and victimized employees never realize what’s happened to them until after they leave the toxic work environment. In the aftermath, the realization of the premeditated health harm and job loss leads to further traumatic psychological injury.

We need a law.

Psychological abuse at work is an epidemic that affects an estimated 48.6 million Americans according to a 2021 Workplace Bullying Institute study.

The mistreatment often leads to serious, long-term physical, psychological, emotional health harm and economic injury, as many employees suffer severe financial loss after losing their jobs and careers, too ill to return to work. PTSD, a brain injury, and stress-induced illnesses are common consequences as is suicide and suicide ideation. Employees die.

We have regulations at work for environmental safety. We have regulations at work for physical safety. It has been the historic practice in the United States to legislate issues of employee exploitation. The psychological safety of employees is of no less importance.

We need a law NOW.

The discriminatory nature of workplace psychological abuse

At the heart of workplace psychological abuse is the imbalance and misuse of power, with people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community, the oldest and youngest members of the workforce, those with disabilities, and other groups left out of norms mistreated more frequently.

The 2016 EEOC Select Task Force for the Study of Workplace Harassment Report clearly shows the discriminatory nature of worker mistreatment:

0
percent of women respondents who reported having experienced sexual harassment at work
0
percent of respondents who reported experiencing some form of verbal racial or ethnic harassment
0
percent of LGB-identified respondents who reported being ‘open’ at work and having been harassed
0
percent of respondents with disabilities who reported experiencing mistreatment at work

Anti-discrimination laws are supposed to protect workers against harassment and unfair treatment due to race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information, but they have failed to do so for decades based in part on courts’ requirement of proof of discriminatory intent rather than impact, what courts initially required when the law had teeth. Workers outside these protected classes have no legal protections whatsoever, yet the behaviors and damage are the same.

Those in power designed the rigged system to reinforce their power

Remind them who’s boss. Keep them on a tight leash. Win at all costs. Toxic employers expose their fear of losing control when they psychologically abuse competent workers who pose a threat to that control. That unchecked fear, entitlement, and lack of accountability embolden toxic bosses who try to protect their often unearned power and control.

Positive stereotypes around whiteness, manhood, heterosexuality, cisgender, middle age, and higher wages equate with invulnerability, and many bosses and all employers have the power and privilege to:

  • Control the narrative, including false accusations and sabotage, through closed-door conversations and subjective performance reviews to keep power over workers.
  • Work without tight scrutiny from above.
  • Speak up without fear of retaliation or minimization.
  • See people of their gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and other privileged groups at the top and in the history of their organizations, normalizing their looking the part of leader.
  • Be in the company of people of their same gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and other privileged groups most of the time and feel part of the in-crowd — even promoting them — rather than outnumbered, out-of-place, unheard, invisible, feared, or seen as a token hire.
  • Minimize and ignore those not in the in-crowd, reinforcing their positions in the in-crowd.
  • Use positive stereotypes to kiss up and negative stereotypes to kick down.
  • Stand by white, patriarchal norms even if they are not white or men.
  • Count on their identity to give their views more weight and respect and less questioning during meetings.
  • Have a medical complication, a leave of absence, or a difficult span of time resulting in a lower performance without higher-ups attributing problems to their identity.
  • Use doctors they pay to dismiss valid claims of workplace harm in others.
  • Pay themselves high wages while paying their employees poverty wages, using them as welfare, to reinforce their power.
  • Do well without being called a credit to some aspect of their identity.
  • Never be asked to speak for all members of their identity groups.

We say this hierarchy sits against a backdrop of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, heteronormativity, and more ways of “othering” workers outside the norm — a ranking based on positive and negative stereotypes used to reinforce advantages and disadvantages. But when we put the agency back on perpetrators, we name these problems as actions based on white entitlement, male entitlement, toxic masculinity, and entitlement for those in the norm whose privilege remains invisible to everyone but those outside the norm. Those who:

  • Wonder if their mistreatment is due to a performance issue or their skin color, accent, class, gender identity, ability, age, sexual orientation, religion, size, politics, or other difference.
  • Hide part of who they are (socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious beliefs, political beliefs, age, education, etc.) in fear of no longer belonging to the privileged group.
  • See speaking up to HR or higher-ups as a dead-end route when they see that route not going well for their co-workers.
  • Have to choose between their health and a paycheck when abuse of power makes them stressed and fearful.
  • Know that even anti-discrimination law hasn’t disrupted the status quo and that if they go up against their employer, they’ll be one person against an army and a system. “The courts have moved in the direction of treating employment discrimination as a set of individual cases of intentional misbehavior, while the social science literature on discrimination increasingly points to a widespread, systemic character of bias in the organization of workplaces” (Berrey et al., 2017). If they do use the legal system to go up against discrimination, they also know their identity will also work against them with lawyers and in court, subjecting them to re-trauma, and that eventually the only justice they can seek is monetary, even if it only covers their legal bills. Employers rarely reinstate their jobs, hold bullies accountable, or change their work cultures, and case outcomes stay hidden for the employer but can jeopardize employees’ future job prospects.
  • Internalize the oppression as trauma and insecurity and then feel blame and shame for struggling, less than, fearful, uncomfortable, and alienated.

Reporters often leave perpetrators — employers and bosses — out of rare headlines about workplace abuse, rendering these perpetrators invisible:

Former Kroger grocery store employee’s suicide was a result of ‘torturous conditions,’ lawsuit says

Timnit Gebru was critical of Google’s approach to ethical AI

I’m a shell of who I used to be.’ A female prison guard’s tale of torment

Imagine instead these reporters putting the agency on employers and bosses:

Kroger bosses allegedly drive worker to suicide; employer fails to address

Google allegedly fires Timnit Gebru for the same reason they hire her

Department of Corrections allegedly torments employee, who works with her ex-husband

This practice normalizes abuse of workers in a fear-based culture, keeping too many workers glorifying power, trying to prove we have what it takes to play the capitalist game, and stomping on each other to climb the ladder. Most of us unconsciously subscribe to this myth that equates and even romanticizes success with power and shame with lack of it.

Meanwhile:

  • White men still retain power in the U.S. private sector workforce. Discrimination continues — at an unchanged rate since anti-discrimination law began in 1964. There are major earning disparities between racial and gender groups. In 2014, median incomes for Asian American and white men were nearly twice the median incomes for Latinx workers (Berrey et al., 2017):
Group Median Income
Asian American men $59,766
White men $58,712
Asian American women $48,419
White women $44,236
African American men $41,167
African American women $35,212
Latino men $35,114
Latina women $30,289
  • Workers are dying at staggering rates. We lose more workers each year — at least 4,000 — to preventable occupational injury, including psychological injury (Erin Duffin et al., 2022), than we did on 9/11 — 2,977 (Casualties of the September 11 attacks, 2022).
  • It costs employers more to tolerate bullies than to let them go. Researcher Christine Porath said that “time wasted at work or spent searching for another job could cost companies up to $300 billion a year (more than the total net profit of the Fortune 500 companies)” (2016) — not to mention costs with turnover, lost opportunity, absenteeism, presenteeism, litigation, severances, settlements, workers’ compensation claims, and disability insurance claims (Workplacebullying.org).
  • Employers pass staggering costs of not tending to employee well-being onto taxpayers through health care, TANF, food stamps/SNAP, housing, and heat costs, as our government and hospitals are left to deal with sick and uninsured former workers who can no longer afford basic living costs. "…the United States experiences about 59,000 excess deaths and about $63 billion in incremental costs annually compared to what would be predicted given its per capita income level. Considering the total toll previously estimated (of about 120,000 excess deaths and $180 billion in costs), our analyses indicate that about half of the deaths and about a third of the incremental costs from workplace conditions appear to be potentially preventable if the United States were more similar to other advanced industrialized economies,” according to Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer in this book Dying For A Paycheck (2018).
  • A better way

    It’s time to stop normalizing entitlement, which results in thousands of managers trying to prove their identity fits the part regardless of merit when they resort to childish abuse to boost their fragile egos and maintain their positions of power.

    We often define strength for higher-ups and managers as controlling the most people with the most freedom with the ability to do the most damage.

    This definition cheapens the real definition of strength: treating employees as humans with empathy, dignity, and respect; checking implicit bias and fear-based thoughts; and appreciating those who challenge the idea that working requires internal competition, kissing up, kicking down, joining in with toxicity, remaining silent, and boosting our own egos by psychologically abusing others.

    These employees who challenge the toxicity of the majority of work environments welcome divergent thoughts and different ways of being. They include, improve, grow, and embrace change and difference in both their organizations and themselves.

    It’s time to:

    • Accept the days of lack of opportunity to get into positions of power, reinforced by systems, are still alive and well. These systems and the behaviors that support them influence whether people get jobs, advance, support themselves financially, achieve career goals, and contribute to generational wealth.
    • Recognize the power and control narrative and the value we as a culture place on it.
    • Acknowledge meritocracy and equality as myths and a system of privilege and oppression as our reality. This system rooted in ignorance and arrogance grants those in the norm permission to belong, dominate, hurt, neglect, and ignore others and the rest of us to assimilate, obey, and suffer.
    • Be willing to see our invisible, normalized, unearned privilege around race, gender, age, ethnicity, ability, nationality, religious, or sexual orientation advantage.
    • Stop simply disapproving of it. Become outraged about it enough to proactively give up power through anti-ism work so we can share power.
    • Have conversations about privilege and invisible systems, even if they’re messy and uncomfortable.
    • Take action by supporting legislation that will help prevent abuse at work, re-design the system, and distribute power rather than keep it in the hands of those who currently write the rules.

    It’s time to end identity determining destiny and embrace inspiration, care, and connection — what’s feminized in our culture. It’s time for our employers, legislators, and legal system to protect employees from psychological abuse and prioritize well-being.

    It’s time to fight against worker dehumanization, especially of those who aren’t part of the identity-based club.

    THE BASICS

    Workplace abuse and mobbing

    Understand the basics of this epidemic intertwined with discrimination.

    0 k
    The estimated number of annual U.S. excess deaths from workplace stress according to Stanford's Jeffrey Pfeffer

    Research shows workplaces are the fifth leading cause of death and account for billions in additional healthcare costs. At least half of the deaths and one third of the excess costs can be prevented by tending to well-being.

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    understand how we got here and what's been done

    Crash course

    Learn more about the history of abuse at work — both in the U.S. and internationally.

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    See the abuse playbook

    Stories

    Read stories of targets of workplace psychological abuse.

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    A nurse takes his life after ongoing torment
    I worked at a hospital for over 25 years as an RT. My son, an RN, was…
    Prison
    A corrections officer suffered from repeat abuse after domestic violence
    I was married to a coworker. We were both employed at a prison as corrections officers. After…
    Stethescope, hand, and tablet with notes
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    My late sister-in-law was a long-term and highly regarded employee of DDS and was ready to retire…
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    Teacher’s mental health declines after she is excluded, unsupported, and endlessly criticized by school principal
    In July of 2012, I was hired as a 4th grade teacher for the 2012-2013 school year…
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    A city worker deals with abuse from a politically-connected co-worker who higher-ups won’t discipline
    I work for a city in the capacity of a senior clerk and typist. I began my…
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    About two years ago, I lost my job as a teacher. I had a great observation my…
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    A nurse deals with a series of abuses with a new director
    I’ve been a registered nurse in Massachusetts since 2004. I worked for one company for six years.…
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    One advocate describes near-constant terror working at a restaurant
    A restaurant I used to work at was run by seemingly brainwashed people who all thought along…
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    One advocate’s story of abuse at a state hospital
    I work at a state mental health hospital. My position is in administration. I work making sure…
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    I was a registered nurse at the a hospital in Worcester from 2014-2016. During that time, I…
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    I was a 33-year state employee who was bullied and driven to suicidal ideation, panic attacks, and…
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    How one advocate was fired for not taking part in the new manager’s clique
    I’m a 54-year old psychiatric RN day charge nurse who worked for the same employer for over…
    Clothing rack
    How one advocate left an abusive boss for a major pay cut
    I worked at a large retailer as a sales manager for almost six years. My store manager…
    take back your power

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    We're building an army of workers who say enough is enough when it comes to workplace abuse.

    Throughout history, those in power have written the rules to keep themselves in power. We want to change those rules to say:

    Workers deserve — and demand — psychological safety.
    Our policies and actions must support workers as people.
    Employers are responsible for treating workers with dignity.

    We can change the workplace rules if we stand in our collective power.

    Let your state legislators know you want change.

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    We believe America’s workers have a right to safe workplaces where their psychological health is recognized as a vital component of overall well-being. All people — regardless of their gender, race, color, national origin, class, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, size, income, faith, religion, and political affiliation — deserve to lead healthy and productive lives and to work in safe environments free from abuse and oppression.


    We are part of End Workplace Abuse, which strives to protect and promote workers’ right to psychological wellness – critical to physical health, by advocating for the elimination of abusive behaviors (bullying, mobbing, and harassment) from the American workplace. We achieve our mission by organizing and leading a collective movement advocating for psychological safety at work. We lobby for protective legislation and policies, raise public awareness about psychological harm at work, build leaders who campaign for abuse-free workplaces, and collaborate with other organizations advancing workers’ rights. Because bias and prejudice are often an integral part of workplace abuse, we advocate for protections against discrimination.


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