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Workplace psychological abuse defined

Workplace bullying and mobbing are forms of psychological abuse that violate an employee’s inherent basic human right to dignity: severe or pervasive infliction of toxic and unethical words and/or actions, intentional or unintentional, direct or indirect, or omissions, directed in a targeted and/or systematic manner that creates a toxic work environment that is offensive and a reasonable person would find unsuitable to perform regular duties and tasks. A single severe incident of such behavior may also constitute psychological abuse.

There's a pattern to abuse at work

The abuser playbook

There's a pattern to abuse at work. Here’s how it works:

  1. Workplace bullying typically begins when one employee, who is generally insecure and/or jealous, is threatened by the competence or demeanor of another employee. The bully targets an unsuspecting employee to minimize and/or eliminate the perceived threat the employee poses to them. Bullies use persistent psychological abuse to control the narrative. They try to convince the employee they are incompetent. They try to convince others the employee is incompetent.
  2. In toxic work environments, when employees report psychologically abusive behavior to proper workplace authorities, those authorities ignore their complaints. Employers are not liable for psychologically abusive behavior, nor do many want to be. The employer misleads the unsuspecting employee to believe they have a legitimate complaint process to remedy the problem.
  3. The employer fails to alter the employee's work environment. The employer doesn't remove the stressor. The emboldened bully continues to abuse the target without consequence or deterrent. The complaint process is unnecessarily prolonged.
  4. The unsuspecting employee voluntarily leaves, dies, or is fired, succumbing to the silent killer stress of the work environment. There is significant physical, mental, and emotional injury as well as severe economic harm. Game over. The bully wins. Her perceived competition is gone. The employer wins. Their perceived threat of liability is gone. The unsuspecting employee had done nothing to provoke either.
  5. Trauma upon trauma. When the employee realizes the institutional duplicity and complicity of tampering with their health and livelihood, forcing them off the payroll to avoid liability, trauma upon trauma occurs.
  6. Upon trauma. The employee further realizes there is no legal recourse for any of it.

Who’s picking up the tab for the long-term health care of millions of unemployed citizens and basic needs costs? You are: the taxpayer. And you have been for decades.

Common characteristics

Asymmetry of power

Abusers at work take advantage of the power they have over another employee. Abusers are typically managers (though can be co-workers) and use their power as a weapon to isolate and belittle. Research shows ZERO evidence to support employees brought on the abuse through weakness. In fact, evidence shows targeted and victimized employees are often high performing, highly ethical employees whose competence poses a threat to their low performing, low ethical bosses.

Implicit bias

Treating people as different or “the other” is a tool abusers often use to reinforce negative stereotypes and retain their power. According to a 2017 study in Rights on Trial, targets of workplace abuse are often women, Black workers, Hispanic workers, workers over 40, workers in the LGBTQ community, and workers with disabilities. When discrimination law moved from a focus on impact to intent in the 1980s and 1990s, the law became much less effective in dismantling the social hierarchies at work that have kept white men in the vast majority of power positions in the U.S. workforce. We need more protections for all workers, especially those who suffer from legal discrimination (the kind they can’t prove).
types of abuse

Abuse disrupts connection. When abusers deceive others into thinking the targeted employee is the problem, they use the emotional abuse they caused to convince others that the targeted employee is mentally ill, setting the stage for mobbing.

Repeated or single events also typically seen in domestic abuse:

  • Discounting and minimizing
  • Name-calling, put-downs, yelling, or intimidating gestures
  • Silent treatment, ignoring, or walking away from you
  • Excessively harsh criticism or reprimands
  • Unwillingness to engage in a dialogue
  • Rumors, gossip, behind-the-back defamation, or false accusations
  • Offensive language, jokes, or sarcasm
  • Comments about your protected status (age, gender, religion, race, color, beliefs, for example)
  • Threats
  • Blaming or guilt
  • Placating
  • Making a joke out of your feelings
  • Jumping to conclusions about what you think
  • Changing the subject, not allowing you to speak, deflecting, or blaming you when you confront them

Exclusion from:

  • Meetings, social events, and conversations you should be involved with
  • Timely access to resources and information you need to do your job
  • Support, empathy, and attention (when others receive it)
  • Assignment of work (followed by reprimands for not completing work)

Unfairness (also called gaslighting or crazy-making) designed to make you believe you’re the problem. The abuser twists, lies about, or selectively omits information to favor them to make you doubt your own memory, perception, and sanity.

  • Inaccurate, negative performance reviews — a paper trail to justify the abuse as a business decision
  • A demotion or other discipline, including threatening job loss, without cause
  • Micromanaging
  • Inconsistently complying with rules
  • Discounting and denying accomplishments or taking credit for your work
  • Blocking requests for training, leave, or promotion
  • Increasing responsibilities without giving you authority to complete the responsibilities
  • Removing responsibilities with no explanation
  • Unreasonably heavy workloads, even non-related work
  • Underwork resulting in you feeling useless
  • Unrealistic deadlines
  • Favoritism involving you having a separate set of rules or benefits or frequently changing rules
  • Vague unsatisfactory work performance reviews or accusations without factual backup
  • Pestering, spying, stalking, or tampering with personal belongings and equipment

Lack of clarity or vague directions and responses to take away your power, leaving you confused. It’s deception that can set you up for failure regarding:

  • Work expectations (changing them without notice, explanation, or buy-in)
  • Deadlines (with reprimands for missing deadlines not communicated)
  • Reprimands without providing ways to improve

In hostile work environments, bullying escalates to mobbing when you report abusive behavior to the proper workplace authorities only to discover higher-ups prioritize avoiding liability over your well-being: 

  • The employer’s representative employees typically mislead you to believe the employer has a legitimate complaint process in place to remedy the problem but then ignore your valid complaint by using a bogus complaint process to avoid employer liability.
  • The employer/its representative employees also don’t remove the stressor (the bully) or change your work environment. The bully continues to harass and abuse you without consequence or deterrent. The representative employees string you along by prolonging the complaint process.
  • You voluntarily leave, die, or are fired after succumbing to the silent killer stress and its subsequent physical and mental injury. Game over. The employer wins. The threat of liability is gone.
  • Further trauma occurs when you realize the institutional complicity of tampering with your overall well-being, forcing you off the payroll to avoid liability and the absence of any viable legal recourse to address any of it.

…the United States experiences about fifty-nine thousand 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.
Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer in his book Dying For A Paycheck (2018)

WHY workplace abuse is a problem

Workplace abuse damages employees, their families, organizations, and society.

All health harm and injuries from workplace bullying and mobbing are attributable to prolonged exposure to a stressful work environment.

Physical harm

Stress symptoms can include:

  • Cardiovascular: Racing heart rate, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Brain injury
  • Muscular: Aches and pains
  • Immune: Reduced immunity, allergy and skin issues
  • Digestive: Nausea, eating too much or too little
  • Other: Chronic fatigue, headaches, hair loss, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, lack of coordination, sweating, dizziness, rapid breathing
Mental/Emotional harm

Workplace abuse is betrayal trauma. Mental and emotional harm can include:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Inability to focus, make decisions, and problem solve
  • Mental slowness and memory problems
  • Hypervigilance
  • Avoidance of feelings or places
  • Shame, guilt, or embarrassment
  • Loss of identity
  • Loss of confidence
  • Loss of morale
  • Inability to rebound
  • Feeling of injustice
  • Feeling of worthlessness
  • Feeling betrayed, isolated, and abandoned
  • Denial, shock, numbness, moodiness, irritability, fear, anger, grief, sadness, rumination, and self-blame
  • Flashbacks and nightmares
  • Excessive crying
  • Symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Destructive impact on family and personal relationships when loved ones tire of the rumination
  • Self-destructive habits: substance abuse and workaholism
  • Suicidal thoughts when one abandons hope over time and doesn’t see options (a natural stress response)

The mental and emotional harm is not widely understood by:

  • Mental health professionals. Many point to other root causes.
  • Those who haven’t experienced it. Victim-blaming comforts those who don’t want to believe it could happen to them.
Financial harm

Workplace abuse puts undue stress on the employee’s entire family and their lifestyle.

  • Job loss (leaving single parent employees the most vulnerable)
  • Career loss

To combat health harm issues, employees reduce their hours, use up paid time off, take unpaid leave, go on disability, or even have to sell their assets.

Leaving voluntarily (usually last minute/last straw decision) means losing health insurance when the employee is significantly sick.

Without a support system (a spouse’s income or a trust fund, for example), the life-altering event of leaving a job unexpectedly can cripple one’s ability to maintain their home and pay for basic needs.

Contact your local opportunity council for resources: food, shelter, heat, and more.

Workplace abuse costs employers billions of dollars annually in lower productivity and morale, increased absenteeism and turnover, training costs, and higher employee benefits costs. To avoid liability, higher-ups most often ignore complaints or retaliate, including pushing targets out of their jobs. Yet managers who get rid of bullies benefit financially. One study shows that “companies who focus on effective internal functioning and communication enjoy a 57 percent higher total return, are more than 4.5 times more likely to have highly engaged employees, and are 20 percent more likely to report reduced turnover when compared to competitors who demonstrate ineffective communication practices” (Civility Partners LLC, 2009).

When employers ignore employee well-being internally and push targets out, they externalize health care and basic needs costs onto taxpayers. Targets who leave unhealthy work environments are frequently uninsured. When they get sick, they turn to ERs for care, where delivering primary care is not cost efficient. By the time they get there, their health has already deteriorated to a point where treatment expenses are far greater than earlier intervention would have been. This bill would incentivize employers to address employee well-being internally and not make it a public problem.

Prevention is both less expensive and more effective than remediation.

Numbers back up these problems. In his book Dying For A Paycheck (2018), Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer says, “…the United States experiences about fifty-nine thousand 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.” (p. 59, 60).

Workplace bullying and mobbing can also lead to physical violence. Of the 18 mass workplace shootings since 2010 where the employees worked at the location of the shooting, evidence showed six of them — or one-third of them — experienced bullying in some form. Among the 18 mass shootings, there were 43 fatalities, 51 injuries, and 158 individuals affected: 49% of the fatalities and 25% of the injurries were associated with the shootings because the shooters were highly motived at shoot specific individuals. 
The majority of these shootings were based on mocking, non-protected class harassments, and unrealistic work assignments.
83% of these shootings occurred since 2021.

The Bullied Brain book cover

Psychological abuse IS physical abuse

What scientists know about bullying and abuse:
1Bullying and abuse create toxic environments of fear, humiliation, and favoritism. Bullying and abuse can be physical, sexual, and emotional and often entwine all three. Bullying and abuse frequently use grooming of higher-ups and colleagues to make many complicit in the harm. This complicity results in coverup rather than holding the abusive individuals accountable.

2When bullying and abuse occur that do not touch the body, brain scans record the physical damage to the brain. Verbal, psychological, emotional abuse, and emotional neglect harm brains. The physical damage appears on brain scans.

3All forms of bullying and abuse, including those acts that do not harm the body, can do serious scarring, physical harm to the brain. The physical damage can be seen on brain scans.

4Those who bully and abuse frequently present as a dual personality: respectful and caring to those they favor and manipulative and cruel to those they target. The dual personality makes higher-ups believe that the victims are in the wrong. This belief results all too often in re-victimization.

5Harm from emotional abuse is similar, if not identical, to harm from physical abuse when assessed on brain scans. The law distinguishes between the two, but this model is outdated from a science perspective.
6Extensive research documents that brains and bodies exposed to bullying and abuse become distorted and unhealthy. Brain functions can be severely compromised leading to identifying with the aggressor, self-medication with drugs and alcohol, unhealthy relationships, self-harm, eating disorders, etc..

7Extensive scientific research reveals the chronic stress from bullying and abuse can elevate heart rate and blood pressure, negatively affect digestion and sleep, compromise the immune system, lead to hyper-vigilance, and activate anxiety and depression.

8According to scientists, brains being bullied cannot “answer the question” when targeted for maltreatment. They struggle to make sense of reality. They develop “learned helplessness” and a “perception of inescapability.” This result makes it extremely difficult to report abuse.

9Brains that cannot answer the question may slip into a “suicidal swamp.” The brain’s job is to make sense of reality, and bullying/abuse distort reality in unhealthy ways. This distortion causes brains to “degrade all systems.”

10Thirty years of medical, neuroscientific, neurobiological research inform us that bullying and abuse, in ALL forms, frequently leads to chronic illness and shortened life span.

We have environmental regulations to limit environmental risks, but we don’t mention the human impact of abuse

We don’t leave environmental pollution to the discretion of CEOs. So why do we leave employee health up to CEOs — when CEOs too often lead in ways that serve neither the employees nor the public nor themselves when you include the hidden costs of turnover and absenteeism?

We need a law

Workplace bullying rates decrease when countries have laws against it. But there are no legal protections from workplace bullying or mobbing in the United States except in Puerto Rico. 27% of employees in the United States reported experiencing psychological abuse at work. Countries with workplace anti-bullying laws have much lower rates of workplace bullying than the United States.

Sources: Cunniff, L., & Mostert, K. (2017). Prevalence of workplace bullying of South African employees. SA Journal of Human Resource Management. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from; Hango, D., & Moyser , M. (2018). Harassment in Canadian workplaces. Insights on Canadian Society.; Hansen, Å. M., Hogh, A., Persson, R., Karlson, B., Garde, A. H., & Ørbæk, P. (2006). Bullying at work, health outcomes, and physiological stress response. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 60(1), 63–72. ; Hauge, L. J., Skogstad, A., & Einarsen, S. (2010). The relative impact of workplace bullying as a social stressor at work. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology.; Hershcovis, M. S., & Rafferty, A. E. (2012). Predicting abusive supervision. Contemporary Occupational Health Psychology, 92–108.; Hershcovis, M. S., Reich, T. C., & Niven, K. (2015, January 1). Workplace bullying: Causes, consequences, and intervention strategies. LSE Research Online. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from; Mikkelsen, E. G., & Einarsen, S. (2002). Basic assumptions and symptoms of post-traumatic stress among victims of bullying at work. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 11(1), 87–111.; Nielsen, M. B., Matthiesen, S. B., & Einarsen, S. (2010). The impact of methodological moderators on prevalence rates of workplace bullying. A meta-analysis. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 83, 955–979.; Ng, C. S., & Chan, V. C. (2021). Prevalence of workplace bullying and risk groups in Chinese employees in Hong Kong. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(1), 329.; Niedhammer, I., David, S., Degioanni, S., Drummond, A., & Philip, P. (2009). Workplace bullying and sleep disturbances: Findings from a large scale cross-sectional survey in the French working population. Sleep, 32(9), 1211–1219.; Schat, A. C. H., & Frone, M. R. (2011). Exposure to psychological aggression at work and job performance: The mediating role of job attitudes and personal health. Work & Stress, 25(1), 23–40.; Sepúlveda-Vildósola, A. C., Mota-Nova, A. R., Fajardo-Dolci, G. E., & Reyes-Lagunes, L. I. (2017). Workplace bullying during specialty training in a pediatric hospital in Mexico: a little-noticed phenomenon. Rev Med Inst Mex Seguro Soc, 55, 92–101.; Sprigg, C. A., Martin, A., Niven, K., & Armitage, C. J. (2010). Unacceptable behaviour, health and well-being at work: A cross-lagged longitudinal study. Institution of Occupational Safety and Health.; Vartia-Vaananen, M. (n.d.). Workplace Bullying and Harassment in the EU and Finland. Finish Institute of Occupational Health. Retrieved 2022. ; Vie, T. L., Glaso, L., & Einarsen, S. (2011). How does it feel? workplace bullying, emotions and musculoskeletal complaints. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 53(2), 165–173.; Wu, T.-Y., & Changya Hu. (2009). Abusive supervision and employee emotional exhaustion. Group & Organization Management, 34(2), 143–169.

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 workplace abuse, workplace bullying, workplace mobbing, 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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