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Emotional Abuse in the Workplace

Ms. Carroll is a retired paralegal who now works as a certified aromatherapist. She enjoys freelance writing in her spare time.

How can you make sure that emotional abuse doesn't wither your workplace from the inside?

How can you make sure that emotional abuse doesn't wither your workplace from the inside?

Workplace Tensions

"A hurtful act is the transference to others of the degradation which we bear in ourselves." - Simone Weil

Emotional abuse in the workplace? You betcha. It happens at home, so why wouldn’t it happen at work? The people who are abusive at home can be abusive at work. Or conversely, those abusive at work can be a Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, doting on those at home after having gotten their aggression out of their system at work.

Emotional abuse at home includes screaming and yelling, aggression through profanity or punitive acts (punishment), persistent criticisms, undermining friendships, or otherwise impeding the natural growth and happiness of an individual. It can be subtle or it can be blatant, and it doesn’t stop with these illustrations. Abuse comes in many forms.

Psychologists sometimes refer to abusers as “crazy makers,” because, over time, the abused mysteriously feel like they have caused and/or deserved the abuse. This is because abusers are often highly skilled “spin masters.” When the abused attempt to stick up for themselves, the abuser turns it back on the victim by changing the subject or re-directing the fault to the victim in some way. In this way, the actions of the abuser are never effectively dealt with and the abuse continues - sometimes for years before the victim finally breaks free. It’s akin to battered-woman syndrome.

At work, emotional abuse can be just as obvious or subtle as it is at home. It can come in stripes, solids, or polka dots, but it is the same animal AND it is JUST AS destructive. Abuse can occur at the supervisor-subordinate level, or among co-workers. It comes in the form of acts or verbal comments that create emotional pain or isolation. If the acts or comments are repetitive, intimidating, and designed to humiliate or degrade, then it is clearly defined as bullying.

Some broad examples of abuse in the workplace by a supervisor towards a subordinate include:

1. Intentionally excluding subordinates from benefits, activities, or opportunities.

2. Deliberately impeding or sabotaging the work product of a subordinate (such as setting impossible work deadlines, withholding critical information, not providing enough work so as to create a sense of uselessness).

3. Removing responsibilities or changing work habits in an attempt to coerce resignation.

4. Creating or allowing a hostile work environment.

Examples of abuse in the workplace by a co-worker towards one or more co-workers are very similar and include:

1. Intentionally excluding co-workers from activities or opportunities.

2. Deliberately impeding or sabotaging work product (such as hiding or falsifying valuable information.)

3. Attacking the work product of another in front of supervisors and/or peers.

4. Undermining a co-worker’s reputation with malicious accusations.

5. Bullying co-workers with demeaning or threatening remarks.

Many times managers make noble attempts to maintain a non-abusive and non-hostile working environment from the top down but fail to recognize or address emotional abuse taking place at lateral levels among staff support. Worse, they may see it and pass it off as mere office gossip, isolated events, or issues that employees should resolve among themselves. Take, for instance, an employee who consistently makes rude and threatening remarks to another employee. This is bullying; it is not office gossip. Office gossip is distinctly different and unfortunately, normal behavior. Gossip is jealous and petty. Bullying is intimidating and emotionally damaging.

Workplace abuse is more common than many managers want to realize or admit and so it persists without diagnosis or treatment. But victims of workplace abuse suffer from frustration, anxiety and/or panic attacks, hopelessness, anger, fear, depression, inability to sleep, loss of appetite, and headaches. In the long run, the outcome is higher medical costs, high rates of turnover, and lower morale and productivity. Therefore, it behooves managers to adequately monitor and properly diagnose emotional abuse among supervisors and/or staff in the workplace. Abusers should be reprimanded for using abusive language or tactics, rather than dismissed as petty or insignificant.

Thousands of employees quit their jobs each year, or even worse, start each day with the dread of going to work. If you are a victim of emotional abuse in the workplace, recognizing the abuse is the first step toward removing yourself from it. You may ultimately decide the abuse is sufficient to justify your resignation, but in the interim, find ways to reduce your stress level. Maintaining good physical health always helps balance emotional health. Keep a safe distance from an abuser when possible. Moreover, NEVER trust an abuser with information that can be used against you – rest assured, it will be! And perhaps most importantly, call it what it is. Don’t be bullied. Stand up for yourself even if that means reporting the abusive behavior to your supervisor or another manager you feel you can trust. Be calm and non-retaliatory, and if abuse repetitively continues, keep a log of abusive actions or comments. In the end, even if managers refuse to recognize and act on the abusive situation, this log may be what helps you decide when enough is enough.

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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Lisa on August 23, 2018:

I was severely bullied at work in a factory for just over two years i had everything that happen to me from verbal abuse at extreme force shouting screaming finger pointing in my face by work collages to theft from inside my locker it got broken into three times. I was public belittled and huminated in front of others rumors spread about me excluded from going out to meals and being called a tramp by others. I got really really suicidal to the point were i took overdoses of sleeping pills antidepressants and paracetamol packets and packets of them nearly every other week/month. I ended up leaving that factory in 2009 and it was in 2015 i got signed of work and put in the support group i had a nervous breakdown not once but twice and was hospitalized more then once from taking overdoses. I cant work no more ive been signed of work due to anxiety depression panic attacks social anxiety and ismonaic sleep disorder. I do blame the bullying that happened to me nothing was done about it they left well before i did i couldnt afford to leave the factory before 2009 the final straw was when someone shouted at me inside the department i just then walked out of the factory and i didnt go back there. There was many cases of bullying past and present inside that factory even now bullying inside still happens everything from verbal abuse name calling and rumors being spread

Gail on June 22, 2018:

I enter medical claims at work so the claims adjusters can process them. Sometimes a name or provider isn't in the system so there are people I can send the claim to so I can get the information. I also have the option of guessing but then I'm endanger of entering it wrong and I can be in real trouble. It's returned to me and I enter the claim. There is someone and I think I know who that responds with insulting comments--like I should know and should look it up. I can look up info but I don't have access to all the information. It has gone on awhile and I've just let it go--and I shouldn't have. Today I got a very mean response and I forwarded it to the team leader. Maybe I do ask stupid questions and there are some things I should have known but I'd rather pass something than make an incorrect guess which would take a long time to correct the error.

Julie on July 16, 2017:

Hi, i am being bullied at work. By a coworker who is speading gossip and lies about me and i feel like every body just looks at me when i walk by, i now sit by myself at breaks and go home for lunch.. I feel so lonely and cant perform my work duties like i used to. Its been going on for almost 4 weeks.

green on April 22, 2015:

Let me say it all. it hurts and it hurts really.

Prince Bethel from Africa on February 07, 2015:

This is quite interesting. I learnt from it and enjoyed reading it. Voted up!

Vicki Carroll (author) from Birmingham, AL on May 28, 2013:

I hate to hear this is happening to you. Hope the article helped and best wishes. There is a website called Job2Careers. It's free to sign up. You might want to try to see what else is available in your area. Being yelled at while at work is good justification for finding other employment if you ask me!

Debbie on May 24, 2013:

For two years now I've been living in hell, with abuse from my one department head, head of housekeeping is her title, I've been yelled at, belittled, harassed, and have felt embarrassed by comments this woman has made to me, right now I am feeling so sick inside, shaking, it hurts so much but I need my job, I fear reporting her for fear things will get even worse, I've seen her mange to fire those who tried to report her,

thanks so much for your article,

Vicki Carroll (author) from Birmingham, AL on January 21, 2013:

It's nice to have a "colleague" on Hubpages. We could probably share some war stories most of the general population would find hard to believe!

Koralee Phillips from Vancouver British Columbia Canada on January 21, 2013:

I was a Paralegal too for about 10 years. I bet have also seen a lot of bullying go on in law firms. I really enjoyed your hub, the topic of bullies at work is very important to me. I especially liked your tip to not give an abuser any information to use against you.

abused adult child on January 29, 2012:

There is something in the bullied that the bully can see and respond to in a negative and abusive fashion. My experience, and observation taught me that because I am the offspring of a couple of extreme child abusers, that I was damaged in such a way that it is obvious to those who bully. Of course, working in a government office environment lends itself to bullying because the majority of supervisors only have high school education, are not trained in effective ways of dealing with staff, and are generally ignorant of proper behavior in the workplace. These uneducated supervisors generally only have one staff member under them which promotes bullying. Management does not want to be bothered. Engage the union in the battle against bullying and/or an employment lawyer. Keep detailed, daily notes on work given, work completed, comments, etc.

MamaTigress on December 09, 2011:

Thank you for writing this. I survived what I believe to be an intensely hostile working environment for months before I was degraded and ultimately fired. People need to arm themselves with more awareness and know their rights in a situation like this.

Vicki Carroll (author) from Birmingham, AL on June 02, 2010:

You are spot on, Neil. There is a LOT to learn in this field. Emotional abuse is frequently passive aggressive and leaves the victim's head swimming.

Neil Warner on June 02, 2010:

I do agree with this comment: "It comes in the forms of acts or verbal comments that create emotional pain or isolation. If the acts or comments are repetitive, intimidating, and are designed to humiliate or degrade, then it is clearly defined as bullying."

Perhaps the underside, less obvious aspect of this behavior is passive aggression, where the sabotage is so clever as to leave the damaged co-worker surrounded by confusion. A co-worker can be expressing words of support, while at the same time avoiding doing the same tasks which could assure project success. There is a lot to learn in this field!

Haris Amin from Mars on May 30, 2010:

i think emotional abuse its better than all other abuse on workplace, better in sense that its the least hurting one.

Only a boss with some artistic skills would be able to abuse emotionally.:)

valeriebelew from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA on May 29, 2010:

alahiker, I have definitely experienced work place bullying. It is actually very common for people who are new on a job whether the person is a staff person or the supervisor. Generally, bullies take advantage of anyone who is vulnerable, and the new person is generally an easy target. Ofen staff resent a new person coming in as their supervisor and will attempt to make the new supervisor look bad. I have experienced it somewhat on almost every new job I have entered into. Thanks for this hub. As is said in the video, I pretended it wasn't there for as long as I could, and wondered if it was all in my head. Such bullying makes life pretty miserable. great write. (: v

lightning john from Florida on May 29, 2010:

Hi Alahiker28, these types of people are usually very insecure with themselves, feeling the need to have this inappropriate behavior. I don't like bullies, but if you study them a while they are just like a cheap safe that can be opened easily.

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