Workplace Bullying Is a Dangerous Form of Abuse—Here's What to Do About It
Being a target takes a major toll on your emotional and physical health.
After Janice Gilligan White met her new manager three years ago, she soon developed reservations. He was prone to exaggerations and untruths, and he was quick to place blame on others. Still, White didn’t think his behavior would affect her 10-year career as an airport supervisor.
“I operated under the assumption that if you do the right thing, you don’t have to worry,” White, 43, tells Health.
Instead, the aggression she felt from her boss became contagious to others in her workplace; she noticed it emanating from another manager as well. “It was like bullying on steroids,” she says.
The behavior escalated. White says she was singled out for failing to follow a company policy. Her work emails began to be ignored, and simple requests were refused. A project she was working on was dismantled. After years of great feedback, White received a low performance review.
“I lost sleep and wasn’t eating,” she recalls. “It was the most traumatic experience of my life.” After consulting her doctor and a psychologist, she decided to resign. "Giving up a career I was passionate about and was a part of my identity was difficult to adjust to," she says. "I was completely lost professionally afterwards."
The rise of workplace bullying
White's experience isn't unusual—in fact, workplace bullying appears to be on the upswing. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), 19% of Americans report being targeted by a bully on the job. About 70% of bullies are men, and 66% of targets are women.
Bullying is loosely defined as repeated verbal abuse, threats, humiliation, intimidation, or interference. And it's nothing new, whether it's on the playground or in the office break room. But “since the 2016 election, we’ve seen a major reversal of what’s socially acceptable,” Gary Namie, PhD, a Washington State-based social psychologist and director of WBI, tells Health. The same brutish bullying in politics is being modeled by people in the work world too, says Namie.
What makes workplace bullying so difficult to navigate is that it's hard to know it's happening to you. If a manager said something offensive or made a sexual comment, you would probably identify it as sexual harassment. But when a boss claims that you keep missing deadlines or goes off on you during a meeting, you might blame yourself and vow to do better.
Yet as the bullying goes on, it takes a serious toll on your health. “[Bullying] can have detrimental effects that are medical, psychological, social, and financial,” Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, associate professor of community health at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, tells Health. “Perpetrators have a lot of control on a variety of domains of a victim’s professional life and are influential to the extent that frequently, victims suffer.”
What drives an on-the-job bully
People who get picked on by office bullies tend to share a handful of traits, says Namie. They’re independent, highly skilled, and well-liked. They prioritize honesty and ethical behavior, and they are reluctant to play games. For whatever reason, they cause a manager or coworker with a bully personality to feel resentful or envious.
But there isn’t a clear-cut explanation for why a bully decides it’s okay to lash out. Some get angry in their personal life, then take it out on a colleague at their office for an “intense quick release,” Elizabeth Cohen, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City, tells Health.
If bullies grow up observing conflict within their family, “they get the lesson that intimidation is a way to get their needs met,” Ramani Durvasula, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and relationship expert at TONE Networks, tells Health. Or they could be too insecure to communicate respectfully.
The sad truth about what drives a bully to continue their behavior? “It works for them,” notes Durvasula. “They experience few consequences, so they keep doing it.”
That's what appears to have fueled the bullying behavior Vannessa Wade experienced when she started a job as a government relations representative. “[My supervisor] would yell at me, wouldn't give clear directions, and would hold meetings without me, so of course I’d be behind on whatever projects we had,” Wade, 37, tells Health. “Perhaps she felt I wanted her job because I was new to an already established company.”
Wade stuck it out for one stressful year, even though “going to the office was a chore that made my chest pound,” she recalls. Finally one day, Wade’s boss ordered her to book some travel plans, fetch her coffee, and be quiet during a meeting.
“That was enough for me,” Wade says. She quit. "Despite my best efforts, this lady made my job virtually impossible. It was tons of stress and there was no way I could work for the greater good in a toxic environment."
What to do if a work bully targets you
Every workplace has a different dynamic. But there are general guidelines when it comes to putting an end to the bullying and escaping with your career and emotional health intact.
Acknowledge the bullying behavior. In a direct but non-confrontational email, let your bully know you’re onto them. For example, write “Hey, I’ve noticed that when we’re in meetings, you do X, Y, and Z.” Your goal is to point out their actions. “This helps ‘clean your side of the street,’ so to speak,” says Cohen. “You’re not just being passive.” (And if things continue to go south, this email provides documentation you may need later.)
In a best-case scenario, your bully will offer an apology, or at least back off. “But the more defensive they are,” says Cohen, “the less likely they are to change.”
Set boundaries. Limit your contact with the bully. Communicate via email or text when you can rather than in person. Avoid socializing. Even when you’re in meetings together, “don’t sit directly across from them,” Cohen advises. You literally don't want to be in their sights, so they're less likely to say something mean or humiliating in front of others.
Take care of yourself. Don't underestimate what the stress and anxiety of dealing with a work bully can do to your health. Practice self-care that restores your calm, and lean on a support group of friends and family who will listen to you vent.
Keep a file. “Stay alert…and document, document, document,” suggests Khubchandani. Make copies of threatening or nasty emails; note any instance of your trying to follow up on a project or get feedback and the bully ignoring you.
Make a formal complaint. If you’ve let the bully know you’d like their behavior to stop, and you’ve set boundaries and nothing improves, it might be time to get a supervisor or human resources involved. Keep in mind that facts will hold more weight than your feelings; the paper trail you've created will be vital at this point.
Just be realistic about the outcome. "The law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments,” he says. And while most workplaces take bullying very seriously, the perpetrator can explain their actions by saying something like, “oh, I am sorry, I was joking, I didn’t know there would be a miscommunication.” Adds Khubchandani: “Many employers will not do enough, but that doesn’t mean you give up.”
If you resign, leave with your head held high. If you feel you can no longer do good work or the abuse is hurting your health, find a different job where you feel supported and can flourish. Yes, it’s crappy to leave a job you love. But if you continue working with a bully, “it’s like staying in a bad relationship, hoping the other person will change" when they rarely ever do, says Cohen.
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