Emotional Abuse in the Workplace
"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 the same persons 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 the 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 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.
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 is very similar and includes:
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 towards 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 some another manager you feel you can trust. Be calm, 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.