Over the past few weeks I’ve had conversations, in person and online, with three women who have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and each has experienced severe bullying and heavy-duty stress at work. If you’re unfamiliar with fibromyalgia, here’s a chance to learn something about it.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic, disabling medical condition marked by widespread pain and fatigue that afflicts women far more often than men. Compared to many other serious maladies, research on fibromyalgia is an early work in progress, but we’re learning a lot about it. According to the Mayo Clinic:
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain in your muscles, ligaments and tendons, as well as fatigue and multiple tender points — places on your body where slight pressure causes pain.
Fibromyalgia occurs in about 2 percent of the population in the United States. Women are much more likely to develop the disorder than are men, and the risk of fibromyalgia increases with age. Fibromyalgia symptoms often begin after a physical or emotional trauma, but in many cases there appears to be no triggering event.
In other words, we’re talking about severe, ongoing pain and the power of a knockout punch.
The gender implications of fibromyalgia are significant. Let’s juxtapose some numbers: If the Mayo Clinic is correct in stating that fibromyalgia will occur in 2 percent of the population, and if studies such as this one suggesting that 9 in 10 sufferers are female are even close to hitting the mark, then we have a hidden epidemic among women.
The Workplace Bullying Institute recognizes that fibromyalgia can be a consequence of workplace bullying (link here). Research is making the link: For example, a 2008 study led by Canadian researcher Sandy Hershcovis (news coverage, here) found that workplace bullying targets were more likely to develop fibromyalgia. A 2004 study led by Finnish researcher Mika Kivimaki (abstract, here), found that stress at work “seems to be a contributing factor in the development of fibromyalgia.”
Anecdotally, here’s a blog post from a nurse manager who suffers from fibromyalgia and is grasping the link to her experiences of bullying at work:
But, it is affecting my health. She is a bully and she wants me out of the office- end of discussion. How do you deal with people like this? Just this morning, there walks one of her patients right into our office. Do I say anything, like “See, you have patients in here!” No, I did not say a thing! I just turned around and kept working! I think that is why some of us are so sick!
Connections to law reform
The bullying/fibromyalgia connection bolsters the argument for legal reform. When the Healthy Workplace Bill is enacted into law, a diagnosis of fibromyalgia may be sufficient to establish a showing of physical harm in support of a legal claim.
Furthermore, the fibromyalgia/bullying connection relates to the work of two Florida law professors who have been writing on other aspects workplace bullying and the law:
- Professor Susan Harthill of Florida Coastal School of Law has written about possible applications of occupational safety and health law to workplace bullying (abstract, here).
- Professor Kerri Stone of Florida International University College of Law has written about how workplace bullying has discriminatory impact on women, even if on its face it is an “equal opportunity” form of mistreatment (abstract, here).
Sadly, it’s not as if we need to add another disabling condition to the list of those that can result from workplace bullying. Nevertheless, the more we understand the destructive nature of bullying, the stronger our arguments will be to respond to it.
Note: Both Susan Harthill and Kerri Stone are scheduled to present on a panel about workplace bullying & the law with me, Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute, and Prof. Lea Vaughn of the University of Washington Law School at the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health (link here) next July in Berlin.