bullying at work

The Invisible Consequences: LIVING WITH THE PHYSICAL EFFECTS OF WORK PLACE BULLYING


Work-place bullying can come in many different forms and hard to notice by colleagues. It can cause psychological effects such as, depression or even physical effects that could be fatal.

When I was a teenager, I experienced some bullying at my all-boys school. Aside from the usual almost-to-be-expected name-calling, ridiculing and shaming, which upset me, but that, in the main, I was able to brush off, I was also physically assaulted and required stitches to my right pinna. So, when I left school and, indeed when I left medical school, my notion of what bullying was really only included its physical manifestations and name-calling. Then I joined the world of work and experienced workplace bullying at the hands of my medical seniors, and my field of vision as to what bullying could involve expanded beyond those common two forms.

As you would expect, when I was working as a trainee surgeon, there was no name-calling in the schoolyard sense of the term, but there were comments like: You’re [insert your expletive of choice] useless”, “How did you even graduate from medical school?”, “I wouldn’t trust you to operate on my dog” and “Just get the **** out of my OR”, which only served to magnify my already burgeoning feeling of imposter phenomenon. But there were also the more subtle, less overt forms of workplace bullying, like gaslighting, ostracization and passive aggression, sometimes done one-to-one so as not to alert colleagues. Added to these were the more specific work-related types of bullying, which included (but aren’t limited to) withholding praise, excessively or unjustly criticizing  you,  withholding  training  opportunities  from  you, undermining your decisions, over-monitoring your work or setting unrealistic goals, deadlines or work load for you.

Why is this relevant to an article on the invisible consequences of bullying though? Because all of those types of bullying in the workplace, whether physical or psychological, direct or indirect, overt or covert, can all lead to the same health-related consequences which often go unnoticed by others due to physicians mostly being ‘high-functioning’ patients i.e., they can hide their symptoms or persuade their managers / colleagues that they are fine.

The psychological effects of workplace bullying include stress, anxiety, burnout, depression +/-suicide and PTSD. In fact, according to a 2013 survey conducted by the US-based Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), ‘The Toll of Workplace Bullying on Employee Health’, of the 516 respondents, 63% had been treated by a licensed mental health professional for work-related symptoms and 49% of the respondents reported having been diagnosed with depression as a result of being bullied. In the same WBI employee health survey, 71% of the 516 respondents reported having been treated by a doctor for work-related physical health symptoms, some of which e.g., high blood pressure /irritable bowel syndrome/ fibromyalgia / headaches etc., can again be hidden by physicians who don’t want their colleagues to know about their illnesses. For those victims targeted over a long period of time, repeatedly high stress levels can persistently elevate hormones like cortisol, leading to conditions like type-2 diabetes, and chronically high levels of inflammatory proteins can cause long-term inflammatory conditions as well as cancers. To conclude, regardless of the mode of bullying employed by the perpetrator, the effect on the target’s physical and/or mental health can be the same and often goes unseen. It is also, very sadly, the case, that some of the conditions suffered by the target can be fatal e.g., death by suicide, myocardial infarctions, and cancers.

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