Workplace bullying, social connection, and social support

(Image courtesy of

(Image courtesy of

Last week I mentioned an excellent 2015 Vanity Fair article by Sebastian Junger, detailing the history of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a diagnosis, primarily as it has applied to soldiers in the military. As the piece moves toward its conclusion, Junger thoughtfully and provocatively looks at PTSD in a social context to explain why so many returning veterans struggle with psychological trauma upon their return:

In a 2000 study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, “lack of social support” was found to be around two times more reliable at predicting who got PTSD and who didn’t than the severity of the trauma itself. You could be mildly traumatized, in other words—on a par with, say, an ordinary rear-base deployment to Afghanistan—and experience long-term PTSD simply because of a lack of social support back home.

He even appeals to anthropology for a deeper understanding of trauma:

This individualizing of mental health is not just an American problem, or a veteran problem; it affects everybody. A British anthropologist named Bill West told me that the extreme poverty of the 1930s and the collective trauma of the Blitz served to unify an entire generation of English people. “I link the experience of the Blitz to voting in the Labour Party in 1945, and the establishing of the National Health Service and a strong welfare state,” he said. “Those policies were supported well into the 60s by all political parties. That kind of cultural cohesiveness, along with Christianity, was very helpful after the war. It’s an open question whether people’s problems are located in the individual. If enough people in society are sick, you have to wonder whether it isn’t actually society that’s sick.”

This long-form piece is well worth your attention if you want to learn more about PTSD in a deeper historical and societal context.

Relevance to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

All of this, of course, carries great significance for workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. We know that PTSD is one of the major impairments associated with this mistreatment. An underlying reminder of the Junger article is that strong social support, both in and out of the workplace, can make a positive difference to targets of work abuse, perhaps even to the point of preventing long-term PTSD.

Unfortunately, we also know that for too many targets, social isolation rather than a human safety net is the norm. Some may not have had a strong social base before the abuse began, which left them instantly bereft of support once things turned bad. Others experienced the disintegration of their social base during the bullying, with co-workers abandoning them or diving for cover, while close friends and family couldn’t get their heads around the dynamics of the abuse.

This is among the many reasons why greater public education about workplace bullying is an absolute necessity. We need to make the public more aware of the prevalence of bullying and mobbing at work and its pernicious effects on individuals and organizations. Moreover, we need to be part of that broader movement to educate the public about PTSD and similar mental injuries and conditions.

4 responses

  1. This is absolutely true. It is so important to have a strong support system when going through this traumatic experience.

  2. My international students perceive the isolation in the US; people working so hard without time to maintain friendships, spend quality time together. Even when friends are together physically, we are apart; everyone tapping away on their devices or silent group bingeing sessions, “Pass the wasabi chips”. When my friends move abroad, I “see” them more (skype or what’s up) than when they lived an hour away. Why? Because now we are engaging our devices! While the pads and pods get full attention so does the friend. When one adds to that being a target, as you mention, those few friends you squeeze in don’t want to spend their precious time with Debbie Downer. After you loose a few, you realize that you show yourself to your health professionals but to friends/family when they ask how are you, you respond, “Good” or “Can’t complain” (because you would not understand or do not want to listen) just to maintain contact, for now. Similar to people with addictions who are isolated, targets need a support group of people who understand and can validate their trauma and guide them through the legal and financial support process. Online blogs or HWB groups in your state are good places to start, and your therapist may know of group meetings for “Survivors of Workplace Bullying”. If you find yourself feeling that you don’t have any friends during this difficult period of time, remember there is nothing wrong with you; rather you are making a decision not to burden them with things they can not understand.

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