Bullied at Work


Bullies aren’t confined to playgrounds and middle school cafeterias. Many people are bullied at their jobs well into adulthood. We like to think of our adult selves as impervious to the mean-spirited behavior of others, but hurtful interactions with our boss or co-workers are stressful, exhausting, and harmful to our careers and health.

Victims of workplace bullying experience emotional distress, depression, burnout, and insomnia. They are also at high risk for heart disease and diabetes. Those who manage to break free from a position where they were bullied often experience lasting symptoms that take a long-term toll on their health.

Workplace bullying can take many forms: a manager humiliating or ridiculing their employee in front of others, a boss using intimidation and threats to demand compliance, a team member deliberately ignoring or excluding a co-worker. A bullying boss may sabotage career opportunities by withholding projects or blocking promotion or reassignment. They may isolate their victim from the rest of the team, eliminating the possibility of witnesses. Any reports of the behavior pit the employee’s word against a team of people who likely have pleasant interactions with the bully.

Abusive behavior in the workplace is pervasive in the US. On any given day, millions of workers experience verbal and psychological abuse at work. A survey of over 16,000 state government workers conducted by Mazen El Ghaziri and colleagues provides insight into the prevalence of workplace bullying and who is most at risk.

Work is stressful enough without having to worry about being bullied or harassed.


Forty-three percent of respondents revealed they had been bullied at work. Nearly two thirds either directly experienced or witnessed bullying that negatively affected their work. Over 50% reported the bullying made them consider leaving their position. Sixty-two percent said it negatively affected their personal life.

The surveyors found that younger employees and those with less tenure experienced the most bullying, possibly due to lower confidence and less familiarity with their occupational rights. Female employees were 67% more likely to be bullied, most often by a direct manager.

Workplace bullying damages both the health of employees and the productivity of entire companies. Bullies often target their higher performing team members, resulting in companies losing their best workers. Employees should not have to tolerate bullying or face losing their job because of a coworker’s behavior, whether or not that person is in a supervisory role.

What can companies do to prevent bullying and protect their employees? The survey results suggest that supportive organizational environments can help. Respondents who experienced bullying but reported working amid supportive leadership where they felt listened to, believed, and respected were less affected by the incidents. Mediation and individual training help, but building a bully-proof environment is more effective, one that cultivates inclusion and self-efficacy for every team member, lessening opportunities for isolation and mistreatment to take place unnoticed. If bullying occurs, employers should demonstrate zero tolerance, ensuring that employees at every level feel comfortable reporting events without fear of retaliation. In response to reports, employers should consider offering paid time-off, counseling, and opportunities for the affected employee to transfer to another position.

Work is stressful enough without having to worry about being bullied or harassed.

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