Workplace bullying, stress, and fibromyalgia

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.

Gender implications

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.

Bullying connection

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.

20 responses

  1. Thank you for this. I have had mild fibromyalgia since adolescence but have always been able to keep it well under control by staying active (walking, yoga and stretching and weight training). I was in a job where I was severely bullied for a year and a half, and the impact on my physical health was enormous. I found that the things I used to do to avoid a fibro flare began making things worse – in fact, for a year, almost ANY exercise made me feel worse. I have been away from that job for about a year and a half now and am just recently (within the last month) been able to resume my normal exercise routine without debilitating pain.

  2. I’m glad you have printed this article. I have been bullied for 2.5 yrs. and I already suffer from severe anxiety. I have gotten a lot worse in the last 2.5 yrs. mainly with fatique. On a normal day, I would come home from work and fall out, meaning I would sleep from 7pm until 7am. I’m changing my situation now, because I’m able to now. I think bullies are no different than Nazi’s.

  3. I try really hard every day not to want to track my bully down and treat her like a war criminal. She still has the same job, making the big bucks and I’ve been unemployed for almost 2 years.

    I realize that my holding on to these memories and feelings allows her to continue to be in control. I am progressing but I obviously have a way to go.

    I wish you all the best.

  4. Laurie, thank you for sharing your situation. I hope the improvement continues.

    Renee and Mary, you are not alone in feeling that way toward your respective bullies, especially when they continue to go along their merry abusing ways. It is one of the most common consequences of this form of mistreatment.

  5. Unfortunately, most of the time bad behavior is rewarded in the work place. I always thought I could affect change just by modeling integrity, kindness and a good work ethic. But these are the behaviors that are not valued and therefore not rewarded.

    That’s why the whole thing seems so hopeless.

  6. Thank you for addressing this issue. I experienced workplace bullying and my supervisors (the bullies) were aware of my diagnosis of fibromyalgia. Needless to say my condition worsened and I had no recourse. I was told by my union and several attorneys that “being mean” isn’t illegal. After only 3 months of this cruel treatment I had to stop working and I haven’t recovered enough to return (3.5 years now). Another victim of this tactic has since developed fibromyalgia. Workplace bullying is not an acceptable budget cutting strategy and out legal system needs to recognize the costs to society. My employer may have saved some money in the short term, but I receive long term disability, social security and am not earning an income; much more costly than moving a veteran employee off the books.

  7. I think this post does a good job at pointing out the detrimental effects on one’s health that bullying can cause. Most of the time its thought of as a psychological effect, but it can also be physical.

  8. Pingback: Ways to Heal Fibromyalgia Naturally | Liae Blog

  9. I am facing retaliation from my boss for even asking for accommodations for my fibromyalgia. This article is very helpful, and I will pass it on to the Equal Rights representative who is helping me get my office to give me the accommodations I need. I know she will be interested because she is very passionate about helping those with invisible disabilities, like fibromyalgia. I don’t know how my situation will be resolve, but my manager is taking action against me on insubordination charges because I was fed up with his bullying and disrespect and called him a horrible manager (with good rasons that are too involved to post here). All because I wanted to periodically work from home when the pain is too great and I am having trouble walking. (My commute is 1.75 hours each way into and from D.C.). Thank you for this research. Keep it coming. I suspect there are a lot of us out there facing this challenge.

  10. Pingback: Panama City Podiatrist writes of Causes of Fibromyalgia | Foot Care For You

  11. Thank you for this fabulous information. Fibromyalgia sufferers everywhere will benefit from your article. I hope that you continue to write good informative articles to help people with fibromyalgia, and I will be back to check often! Thanks!

  12. I was bullied for 2years in a ward by many nurses but one in particular. I took her for harassment and she got away with it despite having my witnesses. I was off for 7 months in pain, more or less everywhere. I got moved into another ward but still have to put up with limitless amounts of stress from a manager. Ive been so ill the past year with nearly every symptom of fibro. The worst being neck pain and chronic fatigue. Life is a joke, people are a joke. Because i respect others i dont say out. Because i need my job for finances i cant leave. Im quiet and a caring person because of these good qualities ive been trampled on by sick bitches. Will they get their day, they better

  13. Thank you so much for highlighting the bullying associated with Fibromyalgia. I, too, was diagnosed with Fibro and Cervical Spinal Stenosis in late 2010 and early 2011. In spite of a stellar career in emergency management and sacrificing my family and myself to serve those in need for 24 years, including orchestrating the logistics response to the WTC and Pentagon, aiding in the OKC recovery of bodies and many, many more, I started several EEOC complaints, but the stress triggered severe flares…I finally contracted with an attorney who is fighting for my rights. My life has been turned upside down in the 1+ years and rather than support, have faced a hostile work environment from team members and management, usually males. Unfortunately, fibro still has a stigma as a “woman’s” psychosomatic disorder, and often treated as such by many men in the work environment. I applaud you, David, for your outstanding work in this area. I am drawing heavily on it in my fight for justice.

  14. Your articles are helpful especially to those of us who understand just what we go through everyday and still manage to do our jobs beyond what is expected. Unfortunately, employers fail to make reasonable accommodations which has placed many in dire economic circumstances. Recently I asked for reasonable accommodation and ABSOLUTELY NOTHING was done despite my doctors responding to the employer’s requests. Instead, I was told I had to sign medical releases for my employer and was told that unless I submitted the signed documents releasing them (the employer and their physician) I would be subject to termination in only a few days no less. Not once has the employer engaged in any positive negotiations to accommodate. I now am in fear of losing my job not to mention all the additional stress. I am now trying to attempt to get legal counsel on a minimal income but have had no success. How do employers get away with this blackmail? Fighting for justice and forcing employers to recognize federal laws (ADA and FMLA) is necessary and it is time for employers to face severe sanctions when they retaliate and threaten employees who do their jobs with excellent reviews.

  15. i have had these symptoms of fibromyalgia for around 6/7 years now and it is only recentley that it has been diagnosed after years of being told that the gps cant find anything wrong. it has been a relief to know i am not experiencing this purely in my imagination and that now i can start trying to find a way to combat some of the symptoms with aids from my dr. Although the pain has been really difficult to deal with sometimes and the sleep deprivation has been quite bad, i have managed to carry on at work and ‘getthrough’it with the support of a very good management system in place, a great work atmosphere and a love of my job. Unfortunately my very good manager has recently gone off on long term sickness with cancer and we have a new manager in place who has completely destroyed the upbeat work atmosphere that we once enjoyed. she is a bully out and out with the compassion for anyine in the work place. she recently told a colleague who has a very good work record but has to deal with dyslexia that “It was time to face your demons”!! There have been three instances of stress related sickness since her arrival and i am now feeling so stressed that i began to think i was going senile due to my lack of short term memory and an inability to remain organised. I even got lost on my way to work one day which upset me so much i thought i was having a breakdown. i have been reassured by my dr that hese symptoms are not uncommon to fibromyalgia and have been given a sickness leave for 5 weeks! I have never been a person who has had time from work in the past and feel very anxios about this.. althougfh the note says new medication and fibromyalgia, i really believe that the amount of stress due to bad management has contributed to me being unable to cope! after three weeks absence, I have been given a form to fill in for Occupational Therapy for work and on it it asks if this is work or stress related and the manager has put no. i cant prove it is but desperately need advice on this very quickly. Can anyone adviseplease as the pressure is on to getthis form back!

  16. Thank you for this wonderful article. I am a contractor working for the federal government. Today I asked for the possibility of requesting a standing desk because I struggle to sit for so long and my boss replied with a laugh and said “I want a standing desk too.” It appears that reasonable accomodation is a benefit reserved for federal employees only. In addition to making fun of me she emphasized that I’m just a contractor and it’s pointless to even pursue trying to get a standing desk. The sad part of all this is that I work in the public health field and my boss is a well-known public health researcher. Shame on her.

  17. Have intermittment FMLA because of fibromyalgia which in the last 2 1/2 months has kept me from working (a physical in the field job). Now HR is demanding recertification and they want my physician to tell them when flare ups occur. The idiots do not seem to understand that there is no way of predicting when a flare up will occur – try telling that to them and they are so stupid they can’t comprehend. Because of the extreme stress originating from my supervisor and the employer (a health agency at that) – the flare ups are daily. I just can’t believe they want us to indicate when the flare ups will occur – that’s like telling them one would have cancer on a certain day & year. So I am looking to follow-up with the federal government on this since the agency I work for has, in the past, been sanctioned for federal labor violations.

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