Can workplace bullying harm the offspring of women who are targeted during pregnancy?

How does workplace bullying affect the health of an unborn baby? Studies examining possible links between negative health outcomes to the children of women who experienced considerable stress at work during pregnancy suggest that this question merits our attention.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic magazine, “Should You Bring Your Unborn Baby to Work?,” Moises Velazquez-Manoff observes that research on the work stress/pregnancy question is inconsistent, but sufficient to raise concerns:

In 2012, a study of female orthopedic surgeons found that those who worked more than 60 hours a week while pregnant had nearly five times the risk of preterm birth—meaning delivery before 37 weeks of gestation, which can indicate unfavorable conditions in the womb and predict ill health throughout a child’s life—compared with those who worked less. But one glaring problem with this study was that it surveyed women after they gave birth, asking them to remember how much they had worked during pregnancy.

A 2009 study from Ireland that followed 676 pregnant women was better designed. Experiencing two or more work-related stressors—including shift work, temporary work, or working 40 hours or more a week—was associated with a more than fivefold increased risk of preterm birth. A much larger subsequent study from Denmark, however, found no such relationship between “job strain” and preterm birth.

What was I to think? I called up Sylvia Guendelman, a professor of maternal and child health at the University of California at Berkeley. The research could be inconsistent, she said. “But the bulk of evidence seems to suggest that something is there.”

Especially given that workplace bullying can trigger severe stress reactions far beyond those of “normally” stressful work situations, this body of developing research serves as a yellow flag, at the very least, to pregnant women who are experiencing workplace bullying.

Yehuda studies: Stress reactions can be transmitted to unborn children

Even if the workplace studies have methodological issues or yield contrasting findings, other research appears to confirm that women who experienced psychological trauma during pregnancy may transmit stress reactions to their children.

Noted trauma expert Rachel Yehuda led a team of researchers who studied the effects of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks on pregnant women who were at or near the site and who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence. They found that these stress reactions can be transmitted to their unborn children. As reported by The Guardian newspaper in 2011:

…(T)he children of women who were traumatised as a result of 9/11 subsequently exhibit an increased distress response when shown novel stimuli. Again, this was related to the stage of pregnancy – those with the largest distress response were the ones born to mothers who were in their second or third trimester when exposed to the World Trade Centre attacks.

Previous trauma research led by Yehuda indicates a similar association between Holocaust survivors who experienced PTSD and increased risk for PTSD by their offspring.

“Something is there”

To borrow from Professor Guendelman (quoted in The Atlantic article), something is there.

Although concededly speculative, it makes intuitive sense for us to be connecting these dots. Workplace bullying is a form of targeted mistreatment that threatens one’s livelihood and sense of well being, and it has long been associated with symptoms consistent with PTSD. In severe, recurring forms, it has been likened to torture.

Furthermore, while it’s not clear whether the frequency of workplace bullying increases during pregnancy, it’s no secret that many employers do not greet news of a worker’s pregnancy with open arms. For example, as the Great Recession tore through the global economy, The Guardian noted an apparent increase in bullying faced by pregnant staff. (Legally, this is potentially significant, as many jurisdictions — including the U.S. — prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of pregnancy.)

Accordingly, this body of research on the effects of trauma on unborn children bears watching, for it potentially adds to our understanding of the harm that may be caused by workplace bullying, and thus could very well carry important implications for public health and public policy.

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Related posts (click on titles to access full articles)

Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids (2011) — “We know that severe workplace bullying can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression in its targets. But that’s not all: In making our case for taking this form of abuse seriously, we also need to acknowledge how children become the secondary victims of bullying-induced depression.”

Workplace bullying and families of targets (2011) — “Workplace bullying often creates victims in addition to the target of the abuse. In particular, close family members often pay a price as well, as personal relationships are severely tested and sometimes fractured. Many bullying targets, and those who have interviewed, counseled, and coached them, have known this for a long time. Now, emerging research is helping to build the evidence-based case.”

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One response

  1. I sure wish I would have read the Guardian article in 2009. I was not given tenure at my university and believe what played a huge role in that decision was my 2nd pregnancy which happened to be a high risk pregnancy. My colleagues met in secret to discuss my pregnancy and how it may impact them if I delivered early or if I miscarried. The bullying ensued and the evaluations some of my colleagues wrote reflect a bias against mothers. I left that job in December of 2009 and struggled to find something comparable until fall of 2013. I am now mid-career … Yet I’m starting from scratch just like I did when I got out of grad school. I’m luckier than many who lost jobs in 2008 and 2009 but remain stunned that people got away with discrimination. Women should not be bullied because they are pregnant or have kids.

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