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work & career

Bullying at Work

Being bullied at work? You're not alone. Learn about the causes and effects of this toxic behavior and what to do about workplace bullying.

Depressed man on phone

Understanding bullying behavior at work

Bullying at work is much more widespread than you may imagine. About 30% of American workers report being bullied at work, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. And it doesn't just take place in offices and on factory floors. As many as 43% of remote workers also experience bullying.

A workplace bully might use everything from offensive jokes to seemingly playful pranks to embarrass or frustrate you. More subtle acts, like purposely giving you inaccurate work information or excluding you from events, can also count as bullying. While a coworker of similar rank may bully you, managers and supervisors can also misuse their power. For example, you might expect a supervisor to offer constructive criticism. That's part of their job. However, a bullying supervisor may overly criticize you in front of others in an attempt to embarrass or tear you down.

Bullying behavior at work can add stress to any job. You might continually check the shift schedule or watch the clock, hoping you can avoid the bully. On days that you can't avoid the bullying, you may leave work feeling angry, embarrassed, and vulnerable. Fear of retaliation might keep you from speaking up. Or maybe you rationalize that the bully's behavior isn't as bad as it seems. Perhaps you think you should simply “tough it out” or change your own behavior.

But the truth is no one deserves to be bullied at work, and these incidents are not your fault. No matter what's motivating the bully, they're responsible for their own behavior. That doesn't mean you have to wait for them to realize the error of their ways. You can take steps to end bullying and protect your own sense of well-being.

Types of workplace bullying

While playground bullies may resort to physical violence, bullying in the workplace tends to take on different forms. Common forms of workplace bullying include:

Verbal bullying. This type of bullying could involve name-calling, threats, and other inappropriate remarks. It can also include more subtle attempts to make a person feel bad, such as mixing constructive criticism with demeaning language.

Cyberbullying. Cyberbullying may include attempts to mock or intimidate coworkers via social media posts, emails, or other online messaging systems. A cyberbully might leave insults under your profile picture or try to humiliate you in a chat group with coworkers. In some cases, cyberbullies can operate anonymously. One study found that nearly 15% of adults reported being targets of cyberbullying, with young adults, ages 15 to 25, reporting the highest rates of cyberbullying.

Social exclusion. This is when a bully uses an “us vs. them” dynamic to exclude you from social interactions with coworkers. A bully might accomplish this by talking behind your back and driving a wedge between you and other coworkers. The goal is to make you feel isolated in the workplace or reduce your social status.

Sabotage. A bully may put on an outwardly pleasant face but take actions to diminish the quality of your work. Supervisors or managers can do this by giving you purposely vague instructions or unnecessarily short deadlines. Coworkers of a similar rank may make attempts to limit your access to shared resources, making your job more difficult.

[Read: Bullying and Cyberbullying]

Bullying vs. harassment

Bullying and harassment are often used interchangeably, but harassment has a more specific meaning. If a bully targets someone's protected class, this behavior is considered harassment.

While legal definitions may vary depending on where you are in the world, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, protected classes include “race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, and genetic information.”

Harassment is a type of discrimination, and may be illegal if it creates a hostile work environment or if, as the employee, you’re forced to either endure it or lose your job.

Effects of being bullied at work

Workplace bullying isn't just uncomfortable in the moment. It can cause real and long-term harm to your mind and body.

Mental distress

Bullying can have a significant impact on your mental health. It can contribute to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. The situation may cause you to feel a lingering sense of hopelessness. You might internalize some of the bully's insults and begin to feel highly self-conscious. This could lead you to anticipate ridicule from others and try to avoid interactions altogether.

Some studies seem to indicate that the psychological effects of bullying can be long term. The results of one study showed that workplace bullying was a predictor of mental distress two years later. Another study indicated even longer consequences, finding that workplace bullying was a predictor of mental health problems in men five years later.

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Physical effects

If you're bullied at work, your physical health is also jeopardized. Victims of workplace bullying may be more at risk for headaches, chronic neck pain, and acute pain. Workplace bullying has also been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. This can have long-term implications for your health, especially if you're already at risk for heart-related issues.

Difficulty sleeping

Studies show that bullying may reduce the quality of your sleep. Once your sleep is disrupted, you're more vulnerable to other problems, such as difficulty concentrating, fatigue, memory problems, and changes in mood. All of this can affect your work and personal life. For example, you might begin to be more irritable and take those feelings out on friends, family members, and coworkers.

Absenteeism and disengagement

Bullying doesn't just affect individuals. Businesses also pay a price. Research shows that workers who are bullied are more likely be absent from work. You might call off due to your neck pain and headache. Or you might decide to stay home to avoid working a shift with the bully. When you do muster the motivation to go to work, you might feel disengaged from your tasks, impacting your job performance, and ultimately, your career.

Why bullying occurs at work

Before you look for relief from workplace bullying, it helps to know why bullying occurs in the first place. The bully's personality plays a big role, but the workplace environment can also make abusive behavior more likely to occur.

Personality factors

Almost anyone can be a victim of bullying. One study found that there is no consistent victim personality profile. In other words, most victims don't differ from non-victims. However, a separate study indicates that bullies may have similar personality profiles. Bullies tend to be:

  • Extraverted
  • Disagreeable
  • Callous
  • Dishonest
  • Strategically manipulative

Bullies typically have a motive for their actions. Motives may include:

Envy. Are you an outstanding worker? Perhaps you frequently receive praise for your hard work or adapt to challenges faster than your coworkers. A bully might feel threatened by your success and lash out at you. Even bosses may use bullying behavior to tear down employees who have the potential to quickly rise in rank. A bully might also see your likeability or popularity with others as a reason to attack you.

Bigoted beliefs. A bully might hold bigoted opinions and target you because of your differences. Maybe the bully is a man who doesn't believe women should work in your specific field. Or maybe the bully sees you as a threat due to your religion, race, or sexual orientation.

Anger issues. The bully may be a hotheaded individual with poor impulse control. For example, an abusive boss might lash out at you and your coworkers when deadlines are missed or clients seem unhappy. Their anger may be the result of their own feelings of helplessness, but that's no excuse to bully others in the workplace.

Workplace factors

The environment you work in may also increase the risk of bullying. In a 2013 online survey, workers in healthcare, education, and public services reported the highest rates of bullying.

  • Bullying behavior is more likely to take place in workplaces that are undergoing organizational change or in spaces where workers must deal with conflicting demands. For example, sudden changes in leadership or direction may create a chaotic workplace in which workers resort to bullying one another.
  • Fields that are generally high in stress may see more instances of bullying behavior at work. These could include servers who have to wait multiple tables in a short-staffed diner, for example, or hospital staff who are sleep deprived yet constantly facing life or death situations.

On the other hand, workplaces with a “psychosocial safety climate” may experience fewer incidents of bullying. A psychosocial safety climate is created when workers are aware of policies, practices, and procedures that are in place to protect their psychological health. In these workplaces, workers and supervisors may have a better understanding of how issues like conflicting demands and lack of communication can increase stress.

How to deal with a bully at work tip 1: Speak out

Whatever your circumstances, there are ways to assert yourself and protect your sense of well-being and it begins with speaking out. Keep in mind that not every bully is the same, though. Some bullies may leave you alone after you initially speak up. Others may intensify their efforts until you take more extreme measures.

Talk to the bully

Confrontation can be nerve-wracking, but it's often the most straightforward step in dealing with a workplace bully. Often, the earlier you speak up, the better, while the longer you wait, the more emboldened the bully may become.

Be direct and calm in your response. Call attention to the bully's behavior and explain how it affects you and your work. For example, “I appreciate constructive criticism, but some of your comments are simply personal insults.” If necessary, make it clear that you'll report the problem to someone else if the behavior continues.

If you fear that confronting the bully will lead to retaliation, you may want to skip this step and move on to the next.

Do you struggle to clearly express how you're feeling inside?

Differences arise in any relationship, whether at home or at work. But there is a way out of seemingly unresolvable conflicts where everyone leaves with a sense of fulfillment and with their self-respect intact. This is the path of Nonviolent Communication from Sounds True.

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Talk to friends

Bullying can make you feel powerless and alone. That's why it's important to talk to someone about the situation and your feelings. You don't have to have this chat with a coworker (especially in situations where you are already facing social exclusion). You can turn to friends and family members for social support. This can help remind you that you're not alone, and your confidant might have advice to share as well.

If you do talk to friendly coworkers, you might find that you're not the bully's only target. This can make it easier to form a united front and make a persuasive case to your manager or HR contact.

Tip 2: Keep a detailed record

In a journal or on your smartphone, keep track of each instance of bullying. Write down the time, the place, and what happened. If there were any witnesses, write down their names as well. During instances of cyberbullying, take screenshots of the exchanges.

You can also write down how the incidents have affected your work performance. Did their behavior distract you from an important task? Did they withhold resources or block your progress? These details can demonstrate how the bully is slowing down workplace productivity.

Keep a detailed, but objective record. Avoid over exaggerating or editorializing. You can use this record if you need to demonstrate to your boss or HR manager how you've been targeted.

Report the bully

When bullying remains a consistent problem, talk to your manager about it. Let them know how it's affecting your ability to work. Again, remain collected and professional. Rather than attack the bully's character, simply lay out the events and the consequences, referring to the records you’ve been keeping. If your boss is the bully, you'll need to file a complaint with the human resources department instead.

[Read: Mental Health in the Workplace]

What should you expect after you make your report? It depends on the policies that your employer has in place. The bully may be fired, suspended, reassigned, or simply reprimanded. If the bully faces no consequences, take a step back and consider whether you wish to remain working in a toxic workplace or if you can find options elsewhere.

Bullying at work laws can differ from place to place. If all previous attempts to remedy the situation fall flat, look into any available legal options.

Tip 3: Practice self-care

Self-care is always important to manage the daily rigors of the workplace, but it's especially vital when you're facing the added stress of bullying at work. Consider the following practices to help you better cope:

Adopt a healthy sleep schedule. Lack of sleep can make you more susceptible to stress, so aim to get enough rest every night. Certain habits, such as avoiding bright screens several hours before bed, can help improve your sleep.

Use exercise to manage stress levels. Embrace physical activities you enjoy, whether they involve swimming, biking, or hiking. Activities that involve gentle movements and stretches, such as yoga, can also be useful in easing tense muscles.

Stick to a healthy diet of whole foods that keep you energized. Try to minimize processed foods and alcohol, which can sap your energy and worsen your mood.

[Read: Healthy Eating]

Use positive self-talk throughout the day. Forgive yourself for any imperfections and mistakes. Acknowledge your strengths, both in the workplace as well as in your personal life. This can help minimize the negative effect that bullying can have on your self-esteem.

Use relaxation techniques to manage stress and build emotional resilience. Some relaxation options include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and body scan meditation. Or try one of HelpGuide's free audio meditations.

Tip 4: Shift your focus

The bully's actions can prevent you from noticing the more positive aspects of your job. Take time to adjust your focus by making a list of those positives. Are there coworkers you enjoy spending time with? Maybe you enjoy helping customers or get a sense of purpose from another work duty.

As you focus on those positive aspects, aim to minimize your interactions with the bully. If possible, ask your supervisor if you can work during a different shift or in another department.

It's also important to remember that the bully's actions are likely an indication of their own insecurities. With that in mind, resist the temptation to search for flaws in your own character or blame yourself for the situation. The bully wants to feel powerful, and the less you dwell on their actions, the less influence they have over you.

Authors: Sheldon Reid.

    • References

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    Get more help

    Help for Bullied People – Tutorial to guide you through the problem of workplace bullying. (Workplace Bullying Institute)

    What is workplace bullying? – Tips and advice for dealing with the problem. (Workplace Bullying Coalition)

    Who is protected from employment discrimination? – Understanding your rights in the U.S. (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission)

    Are You in a Bully-Prone Industry – Why bad behavior is more prevalent in certain fields and what you can do about it. (Society for Human Resource Management)

    Bullying in the Workplace – Question-and-answer fact sheet. (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety)

    Helplines and support

    U.S.: 1-800-273-8255 – Crisis Call Center

    UK: 0845 22 55 787 – National Bullying Helpline

    Canada: 1-866-585-0445 – Wellness Together Canada mental health and substance use support

    Australia: 1300 22 4636 – BeyondBlue mental health support

    Help for gay and lesbian people being bullied

    U.S.: 1-866-488-7386 – The Trevor Project

    UK: 0800 999 5428 – Galop

    Canada: PFLAG Canada offers regional numbers

    Australia: 1800 184 527 – Qlife

    Last updated: November 1, 2022