Signs and Effects of Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is persistent mistreatment that occurs in the workplace. It can include behaviors such as verbal criticism, personal attacks, humiliation, belittling, and exclusion. It’s important to note that anyone can be a bully or be bullied, regardless of the role they have in the workplace. Unfortunately, bullying in the workplace is far from uncommon. According to a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 30% of workers have directly experienced bullying while at work. People who work remotely were more likely to report such bullying, with 43.2% responding that they had been bullied on the job.


Workplace bullying hurts the health and well-being of employees. It can also damage workplace productivity and performance. “Bullying’s pernicious nature creates long-lasting scars that have an effect on the victim’s sense of self-worth, self-assurance, and general mental health,” says Azizi Marshall, LCPC, a licensed clinical professional counselor and founder of the Mental Health at Work Summit and Center for Creative Arts Therapy. This article discusses some of the signs and effects of workplace bullying. It also covers its impact on the workplace and what people can do to help prevent this type of behavior.

Signs of Workplace Bullying

If you’re a target of bullies in the workplace, you probably start each week with a pit of anxiety in your stomach. Then, you count down the days until the weekend or next vacation. Inappropriate behavior by adult bullies may include:


  • Berating people
  • Coercing people to do things they don’t want to do
  • Dismissing someone’s efforts
  • Embarrassing people in front of their employer, co-workers, or clients
  • Excluding others
  • Intimidating people
  • Lying to others
  • Making snide remarks
  • Minimizing others’ concerns
  • Taking credit for other people’s work
  • Threatening others
  • Criticizing others unfairly


Workplace bullying is not always overt or openly hostile. It can also take more subtle forms, including gaslighting, where the bully engages in abusive behaviors but then denies the abuse. The goal of gaslighting is to make the victim of bullying doubt their reality and experiences. Subtle workplace bullying can hide in plain sight, but recognizing its more subtle signs can empower individuals to reclaim their worth.



According to Marshall, some of these more subtle types of workplace bullying can include:


  • Deliberately excluding people from conversations, decision-making, or work-related events
  • Purposely ignoring, disregarding, or avoiding someone, such as by “forgetting” to invite them to work meetings
  • Concealing or distorting information to achieve personal goals
  • Feigning ignorance, changing the subject, or canceling meetings to divert attention from an issue
  • Emotionally manipulating people by using shame or guilt to cause feelings of inadequacy, undue responsibility, or unworthiness
  • Undermining someone’s work to hamper their progress or ability to succeed
  • Pitting people against one another to create a competitive, divisive environment
  • Changing someone’s responsibilities to disrupt their work and interfere with their sense of purpose
  • Creating unrealistic or unattainable expectations or constantly shifting expectations to ensure failure
  • Unfairly criticizing people’s work to hurt the other person’s self-esteem

Effects of Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying can have a range of negative effects. Research on bullying in the workplace quantifies the personal consequences for the victim and the fiscal consequences that affect the company’s bottom line.

Health Risks

The effects of workplace bullying don’t end when you leave the office. Experiencing bullying can cause physical and psychological health problems, including high blood pressure, mood changes, panic attacks, stress, and ulcers.

People who are bullied at work may also experience physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and changes in appetite. Bullying can impact sleep quality and duration as well.

Workplace bullying can contribute to increased stress, low self-esteem, and feelings of anxiety and depression. “One’s sense of security is undermined by ongoing unpleasant interactions, which can cause anxiety, tension, and even melancholy,” Marshall says.

Researchers have found that the coworkers of those who are bullied also experience negative effects, even when they themselves are not bullied. One study showed that victims of bullying and those who witness it are more likely to receive a prescription for psychotropic medications such as antidepressants, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills.


Bullying in the workplace can increase the risk of negative physical health effects and lead to decreased mental well-being for both the victims of bullying and their co-workers.

Effect on Job Performance

“Bullying at work has a negative impact on a person’s ability to do their job. Due to the mental discomfort brought on by the bullying, victims frequently exhibit decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and difficulties concentrating,” explains Marshall.


Bullied workers cannot perform their jobs to the best of their ability. Performance issues include:


  • Inability to work or concentrate
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Lower productivity

Bullied workers not only lose motivation, they lose time because they are preoccupied with:


  • Avoiding the bully
  • Networking for support
  • Making plans to deal with the situation
  • Ruminating about the situation
  • Trying to defend themselves

Targets of bullying feel a sense of isolation.Workplace bullying can leave the victim so traumatized that they feel powerless, disoriented, confused and helpless.

Changes in the Workplace

Workplace bullying has detrimental effects on employers, not just the victim and their co-workers who witness it. In addition to disrupting the work environment and impacting worker morale, it can also:


  • Create a hostile work environment
  • Impact workers compensation claims
  • Promote absenteeism
  • Reduce productivity
  • Result in costly, and possibly embarrassing legal issues​

Other effects on the employer include:


  • Additional costs to recruit and train new employees
  • Erosion of employee loyalty and commitment
  • Increased use of sick leave, health care claims, and staff turnover
  • Increased risk of legal action
  • Poor public image and negative publicity

Coping With Bullying in the Workplace

“To effectively respond to workplace bullying, it’s important to adopt an assertive and direct approach. Confronting the issue head-on and establishing clear consequences for unacceptable behavior is a must,” explains Avigail Lev, PsyD, founder and director of the Bay Area CBT Center.

If you are being bullied at work, there are strategies that you can use to cope. Being proactive may help you feel better.

Set Boundaries

When a bully engages in abusive behavior, tell them what they have done and that it is unacceptable. Let them know that their behavior will not be tolerated and that if it occurs again, you will take action. Setting boundaries lets others know what type of behavior you are willing to accept. Marshall says that setting these boundaries to establish what is acceptable and improper can help you defend your rights and protect against future abuse.

Confront the Behavior

Once you establish a boundary, following through with the consequences is essential. Marshall suggests always remaining professional, avoiding retaliation, and utilizing “I” statements to assertively voice your concerns and address the specific behaviors that upset you.If the abuse continues, call out the behavior the next time it happens. Ask them to leave until they can behave in a professional, work-appropriate manner.

Therapist-Recommended Strategies

Other strategies that Lev recommends to cope with workplace bullying include:


  • Detached empathy: It can be helpful to detach yourself emotionally from the other person’s actions while maintaining a certain level of empathy. According to Lev, this allows people to become less reactive while staying grounded.
  • Reverse DARVO: This self-defense strategy can be utilized to combat manipulation. “This involves recognizing and challenging the Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender tactics employed by the bully. It stands for Detach, Assert, Validate, and Observe. This helps people cultivate detached empathy and helps them stay non-reactive,” Lev explains.
  • The BIFF technique: BIFF stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. Lev suggests it can be an effective way to cope with gaslighting in the workplace. “When confronted with gaslighting, responding in a BIFF manner involves keeping interactions brief and to the point, providing factual information without engaging in lengthy debates, maintaining a friendly tone, and asserting your position firmly,” she explains.

Keep Track of the Abuse

Whenever you feel that you have been bullied at work, document the details including the time and exactly what happened. Write down any witnesses who were present and save any documents or records that can corroborate the abuse.

Talk to Management or Human Resources

If you’ve tried resolving the bullying on your own without success, it is time to involve your employer. Check with your workplace employee handbook to learn more about what steps you will need to take to file a complaint.Marshall notes, however, that not all companies are great at addressing bullying. In such instances, it may be helpful to get outside assistance from legal counsel or an employee assistance program.

Care for Yourself

In addition to taking decisive action to protect yourself from bullying, it is also important to take steps to care for yourself. Seek out social support, practice relaxation strategies for stress, and consider talking to a mental health professional if you are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or distress.


Creating boundaries and directly confronting the behavior are two strategies that may stop bullies from targeting you. Recording and reporting the bullying is also important. You can also help care for yourself by seeking social support and talking to a therapist.

What Can Employers Do?

It’s always in your best interest to confront workplace bullying and maintain a bullying-free workplace because prevention is more cost-effective than intervention or mediation. It’s also the right thing to do if you care about your employees.

“Workplaces can safeguard their employees’ mental health and provide a pleasant and productive atmosphere for all by developing rules and procedures that condemn bullying, offering assistance options, and encouraging open communication.


Employers must offer education opportunities for managers, supervisors, and other authority figures, because the majority of workplace bullying comes from bosses. Strive to create a workplace environment that cultivates teamwork, cooperation, and positive interaction instead.


Employers should also take steps to reduce bullying in the workplace. Educate employees and managers about bullying and outline steps that workers can take if they are experiencing abuse in the workplace.


Workplace bullying can be openly hostile at times, but it can also take more subtle forms. In either case, it can take a serious toll on employee well-being and productivity. It is important to be able to recognize the signs of workplace bullying so that you can take action to protect yourself. Organizations can also take steps to reduce bullying, including helping employees learn how to respond when they witness someone being bullied at work.



How can you deal with workplace bullying?

Calling out the behavior and making it clear that it will not be tolerated are important actions, but it is also critical to care for yourself outside of the workplace. Talk to friends and loved ones, spend time doing things you enjoy, and look for ways to help relax. Talking to a therapist can also be helpful.

How do you report workplace bullying?

Check your employee handbook to see if it describes steps you should take to report bullying. This may involve talking to your manager or reporting the behavior to human resources (HR) so they can investigate. If your manager is the one engaging in bullying, you might need to report the behavior to HR or to someone who is a position higher up the chain of command.

What constitutes workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying can involve a range of damaging actions that can involve verbal, nonverbal, psychological, or physical abuse. Examples can include threats, humiliation, excessive monitoring, unjustified criticism, intentionally lying about work duties, and intimidation.

How can you prevent workplace bullying?

Employers can help prevent bullying by making it a priority to create a supportive workplace and refusing to tolerate bullying behaviors. Co-workers can help by being supportive and speaking up if they witness abuse in the workplace.



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