Workplace bullying, broadly defined as repeated mistreatment of one or more employees by one or more perpetrators, can be conducted in several ways: verbal abuse, work interference, and repeated intimidation or humiliation. The 2017 National Survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that about 19 percent of American adults are bullied and another 19 percent report witnessing bullying; this issue affects approximately 60 million adults1.
This type of bullying is distinct from the daily pressures many individuals experience in the workforce. While central characteristics of many workplaces include stressful interactions with coworkers and bosses or the pressures imposed to meet certain deadlines or goals, these are conceptually different. Workplace bullying is not the boss pressing for a deadline or something that affects a large body of employees. It is directed at targeted individuals, and it can undermine a workplace; a bully values a personal agenda over the work itself.
Effects on Mental and Physical Health
Victims of bullying are at an increased risk of poor physical health and mental health such as anxiety or depression. A study of more than 7,500 men and women in the general French working population found that workplace bullying significantly increases the risk of depression2.
To determine whether bullying directly caused mental distress, a Norwegian study of 1,971 adults found that it predicted mental distress two years later3. Another study of hospital employees found that those who were victims of workplace bullying were nearly twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease4.
Targets: Who Is Getting Bullied?
Many studies examine physical and mental health outcomes of workplace bullying, but they also ignore many population differences. The national average for becoming a victim of bullying is around 19 percent. However, the studies also have shown significant differences in rates of bullying based on both gender and race.
The 2017 National Survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute shows that women were disproportionately targeted: 66 percent of all targets were women, 24 percent were men. One reason for this difference may be that men tend to report bullying less than women. Despite reporting less, one study found that the difference between genders disappears in a questionnaire measuring behavior of coworkers that does not use the term “bullying.”
In addition to these possible gender differences, the rates of bullying were different between racial groups: approximately 19 percent of the white population, 25 percent of Hispanic populations, and 21 percent of African Americans. On top of these already fairly large differences, including a question specifically measuring racial or ethnically targeted bullying, the rates among Hispanic, Asian, and African-American populations rise even more, while it remains approximately the same in white population6.
Gender, Race, and Why “Who” Matters
First, to take a big step back, not everybody who experiences workplace bullying will develop mental distress, depression, or cardiovascular disease. Bullying is just one piece of a puzzle. There are many reasons that some people may be resilient to outcomes later in life. It is believed that positive community support helps protect an individual against harmful stressors such as being bullied7. In general, friends and family help create a support system that protects an individual from stress.
Because workplace bullying is context-specific (that is, it occurs only at work), the importance of a supportive “work family” is most helpful in buffering such bullying. Considering the role of the work family, it’s important to question who is being bullied. Both gender and race can influence the perception of otherness that may make individuals less likely to seek help or establish support within a workplace culture. Since there is a disparity between bullying rates among minority groups, it is necessary to understand if there is also an increased mental health impact on an individual level because members of these groups may have less workplace support.
Mental Health Outcomes
The 2010 Health and Retirement Study surveyed more than 22,000 individuals in the United States over the age of 50 for demographic, socioeconomic, employment, and psychological information. A subset of participants received questionnaires that probed mental distress, specifically questions about their levels of anxiety and hopelessness (a common symptom of depression). The employment questions measured both workplace stressors and coworker support.
Recent nationwide analyses have uncovered some interesting interactions between race, gender, workplace bullying—and mental health outcomes. African Americans and other minority races experience more workplace bullying than white populations. When looking at gender, there was not a large difference in reported bullying. The HRS results agree with previous studies conducted in other countries.
The researchers then looked at the role of coworker support in helping buffer anxiety and hopelessness. Here racial and gender differences begin to reveal themselves. Both men and women report similar levels of workplace bullying and coworker support, but men benefit from the coworker support more than women. Although men and women report similar levels of coworker support, women are still more likely to have higher levels of anxiety and hopelessness due to workplace bullying.
Regarding race and coworker support, African Americans reported the least amount and other minorities reported a level similar to that of white populations. However, only white workers benefited: Coworker support decreased anxiety and hopelessness only in white workers but not in the minorities who had similar levels of support8.
This research can be interpreted in different ways. First, that coworker support is effective only if you are within the majority group. This implies that coworker support is effective only if you perceive that your coworkers are the same as you. Secondly, it could be that belonging to a minority group in the workplace is an additional stressor. While workplace bullying and coworker support may be interacting in a similar way, it is overshadowed by additional work-related stress caused by being in the minority.
What Next? Actions to Take Against Bullying
This is a lot of information that can be hard to tease apart. Because of the nature of studies like this, a number of variables are at play that simply cannot be accounted for. However, it is generally agreed that workplace bullying can be detrimental to both physical and mental health. It’s also been shown that coworker support, to a degree, helps protect victims of bullying from negative mental health outcomes. Reading so much information can be overwhelming, but the research does provide actionable information for all of us.
- Report workplace bullying. What may seem like an obvious solution may sometimes be more difficult to carry out. Bullying often occurs when the victim and the perpetrator have different levels of power in the workplace. What if the bully is the boss? This can make confronting a bully particularly challenging. Most people will formally notify HR about the bullying with varying degrees of success. Visit the Workplace Bullying Institute website for an action plan.
- Make your health a priority. If you experience workplace bullying, take the time to take care of yourself. Visit a mental health professional to maintain emotional stability so that you are clearheaded when making decisions. Check your physical health for stress-related warning signs, such as the very common symptom of high blood pressure.
- Form coworker friendships. The degree to which coworker support helps protect against the effects of bullying is not entirely clear, but the research does make strong evidence to form coworker friendships. The mental and physical health outcomes will only get worse if you feel alone or isolated.
While poor leadership may play in a role in creating an environment where bullying goes unpunished, the workplace culture is still largely created by those in the office. It is also important to be mindful of the different stressors women and racial minorities may be experiencing. It can be difficult to understand others from an outsider’s point of view, but we can all validate the stress and aim for more inclusive work environments.
- Namie, Gary. (2017). 2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey June 2017. Retrieved from http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/wbi-2017-survey/
- Niedhammer, Isabelle, David, Simone, Degioanni, Stephanie. (2006). Association between workplace bullying and depressive symptoms in the French working population. J. Psychosom. Res. 61(2), 251-259.
- Finne, Live Bakke, Knardahl, Stein, Lau, Bjørn. (2011). Workplace bullying and mental distressea prospective study of norwegian employees. Scand. J. Work Environ. Health 37(4), 276-287.
- Kivimaki, M., Virtanen, M., Vartia, M., Elovainio, M., Vahtera, J., Keltikangas-Jarvinen, L. (2003). Workplace bullying and the risk of cardiovascular disease and depression. Occup. Environ. Med. 60(10), 779-783.
- Salin, D. (2003). The significance of gender in the prevalence, forms, and perceptions of workplace bullying. Nord. Organ. 5(3), 30-50.
- Fox, Suzy, Stallworth, Lamont E. (2005). Racial/ethnic bullying: exploring the links between bullying and racism in the U.S. Workplace. J. Vocat. Behav. 66(3), 438-456.
- Treiber, L.A., Davis, S.N. (2012). The role of ‘workplace family’ support on worker health, exhaustion and pain. Community Work Fam. 15(1), 1-27.
- Attell, B.K., Brown, K.K., Treiber, L.A. (2017). Workplace bullying, perceived job stressors, and psychological distress: Gender and race differences in the stress process. Social Sci. Res. 65, 210-221.
Arick Wang is a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University with a focus on neuroscience and animal behavior. His research, conducted at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in collaboration with the Marcus Autism Center, focuses on infant rhesus macaques. In collaboration with Dr. Jocelyne Bachevalier, he studies the relationship between brain development and early social skill acquisition, with a focus on autism spectrum disorder. Arick previously earned his Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology in 2012 and his Master of Arts in Psychology in 2015, both from Emory University.