Workplace bullying 2.0: Psychology and mental health

I suppose it makes sense that, in assessing whether workplace bullying has become a mainstream topic in America, I should start with psychology and mental health.

After all, most researchers concur that the pioneering work of the late Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann during the 1980s constituted the starting point for conceptualizing and understanding the phenomenon of workplace bullying.  He used the term “mobbing” to describe the kinds of abusive, hostile behaviors that were being directed at workers.

And here in the U.S., Gary and Ruth Namie  — both with Ph.Ds in psychology — would begin introducing “workplace bullying” into the vocabulary of American employment relations during the late 1990s.  After discovering the works of Leymann and other European writers and scholars, they decided that an American campaign of research and education was necessary to expose this widespread form of mistreatment at work.

Industrial/organizational psychology & occupational health psychology

Of all the major disciplines relevant to studying, preventing, responding to workplace bullying, the fields of industrial/organizational psychology and its emerging sibling, occupational health psychology, rank first in terms of research and practice.

These fields pass the “blank stare test.” In other words, if you mention “workplace bullying” to the average organizational psychology researcher or practitioner, you are much less likely to get a blank stare in response.

To illustrate:

  • The biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology, now hosts multiple panels on bullying and incivility at work.
  • The APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program regularly promotes programs, publications, and blogs addressing workplace bullying and related topics.
  • There’s a growing body of work on workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in I/O psychology journals. For example, in 2009, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research published a special issue on workplace mobbing and bullying, edited by Len Sperry and containing contributions from Sperry, Patricia Ferris, the Namies, Suzy Fox & Lamont Stallworth, Maureen Duffy, Laura Crawshaw, and Richard Kilburg.
  • Workplace bullying appears with increasing frequency in the latest editions of treatises and textbooks on I/O psychology. For example, Frank J. Landy and Jeffrey M. Conte devote three information-packed pages to workplace bullying in their 3rd edition of Work in the 21st Century: An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational Psychology (2010).

In sum, those who seek an organizational psychology perspective on workplace bullying will find a growing abundance of resources in the U.S.

Mental health counseling and therapy

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those seeking information on counseling and therapy for bullying targets.

This is not to say that helpful resources do not exist. The Namies’ The Bully at Work (rev. ed. 2009) has been a self-help staple for years, and Duffy & Sperry’s new Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions (2012) is a welcomed addition to the literature as well.

But compared to I/O psychology and OHP, you won’t find a similar body of literature and programs on counseling and coaching targets of workplace bullying. For example, when I recently scoured the rich website of the Psychotherapy Networker for commentary and programs about workplace bullying, I came up empty. I’m a fan of this publication — it does an excellent job of linking mental health concerns to broader issues of social responsibility — which makes the absence of information on helping bullying targets all the more glaring.

This isn’t particularly shocking. Although some therapists are familiar with workplace bullying, over the years I’ve had many exchanges with bullying targets who have told me that mental health counseling yielded extremely disappointing results. At times, therapists were downright dismissive or insensitive toward their plight.

Despite the significant psychological impacts of workplace bullying, it’s apparent that the topic hasn’t crossed squarely onto the radar screen of the mental health community. Fortunately, with the right push, it shouldn’t be too hard to bridge this gap. Counselors are trained to deal with related forms of abuse and their consequences, such as child abuse and sexual harassment. The toolkit, so to speak, already is in place.


This is one of a series of blog posts under the “workplace bullying 2.0″ rubric, exploring the degree to which workplace bullying has become a mainstream topic in American employment relations. Psychology and mental health, the law, human resources and organizational management, and labor studies are among the fields I’ll be examining.

7 responses

  1. I am encouraged by the first part of your comment, but of course discouraged by the second part of your comments. Maybe there should be even more research (to the extent there has been any) on the actual psychological effects of workplace bullying (which I prefer to call workplace abuse, which it puts it more clearly in the camp of child abuse and spousal abuse where it belongs). That also might involve targets being willing to speak up, to the extent they safely can, about the psychological effects they have suffered as a direct result of workplace abuse. I personally am being treated for clinical depression and anxiety, according to my psychiatrist, directly activated by the workplace abuse I have been undergoing (with the resulting necessity of taking both antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications).
    I know first hand the medical effects the workplace abuse has had on me, a generally very healthy person. That I have to take medication before even being able to go to the workplace further attests to this. Should having to earn a living have to exact such a price. As I say, more research and more witness had to be made verifying that workplace abuse literally makes people sick. (And I know several other persons in my workplace who are experiencing health problems or the aggravation of current health problems as a direct result of workplace abuse). If abuse is at the level that it literally makes it people sick, why are employers no less accountable than if they dispense toxic fumes into the workplace air? We must speak up and continue to speak up and support research that verifies our personal experience. This is nothing less than a public health issue.

  2. Part of the problem with having workplace bullying recognized by mental health professionals is that many are steeped in toxic workplace cultures themselves. Many are targets/victims of workplace violence and have been so long surrounded by it that they perceive abusive work environments as “normal”. The result is to have the (sometimes willfully) blind in a position of “authority” on the subject.

    This is only compounded by the fact that they only have the target (perhaps the target’s family as well) to work with, and do not have an avenue to readily perceive or effect changes in the work environment. They can assist the target to develop coping skills or alternate plans, but have nothing to offer in terms of stopping the abuse. I briefly saw an excellent counsellor who offered me no realistic hope of successfully resolving the issue at work before I resigned from my unsustainable work environment as a mental health clinician…it was all there was left that I could do.

    Educating mental health professionals is critical to the advancement of the movement to eradicate workplace violence and harassment…but there are many backyards that need to be cleaned up along the way! Health and social service agencies are hotbeds of pro-social individuals ripe for abuse- which attracts abusers in the same way that youth organizations attract pedophiles. Predators will go where the prey is.

  3. Let us not forget, please, the superfluous and tremendous contributions of the late Tim Fields in the United Kingdom. He was a groundbreaker. He had suffered greatly and the effects lasted for the rest of his life, although he overcame and turned around what was meant to destroy him into something wonderful to help other people experiencing the same problems.

  4. I would also like to add… that in my opinion, the reason there is such a lack of assistance for work-place bullying targets is because that would actually acknowledge the fact that these abuses occur. It is almost as though employers and mental health care providers prefer to turn a blinds eye because that has been the norm for so long.

  5. the real reason that therapists have little to say on this issue, is that it is of a type which therapy inherently fails to address.
    Issues with the following attributes are poor candidates for being meaningfully addressed by therapy:
    1) ‘objectively’ significant and detrimental to the subject
    2) external cause
    3) power to remove cause does not rest with the subject, or does so only at great cost (eg having to quit a job to get away from the abuse)
    4) power to remove cause does rest with external agents, but these agents refuse to act (eg the bully could just stop, but won’t)

    Therapy can only directly exert internal effect, ie effect within the mind of the person in therapy. What does therapy have to offer when external actors are the root cause of a problem?
    “Its not a matter of your being abused, its a matter of your not being able/willing to change your mindset so that you can put up with the abuse.”
    Yes, that’s a cynical take, but it’s hardly a mistaken one.

  6. Hi: I am wondering if there is someone that can help me in trying to deal with a workplace bully situation. Specifically what I am looking for is a lawyer in Massachusetts that may be able to help me see if I have a case (I know workplace bullying is not a legal case within itself, but I have some other situations that occurred as a part of the bullying that I believe are illegal). Does anyone know of a good employment lawyer in MA? Thanks.

  7. I feel for you seabreeze… I have been down this path. I had contacted at least a half dozen lawyers and none would come to my rescue… and I thought I had a discrimination and retaliation case. Perhaps you will be more successful. In the meantime, know that you are not alone in this struggle. Even if a laywer could not assist me…. I dug deep and pushed forward for a bettter future for myself. I have since found a new job – one in which the people treat eachother kindly and with respect. Blessings to you.

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