Work life and family life are a lot like peanut butter and jelly. Sure they are vastly different ingredients, yet they combine when pressed together in a sandwich. Our work and family lives are like that. It’s virtually impossible to leave work at the office—especially when working from home. Plus, let’s be frank, the job pays for all those the bills, the groceries, the childcare, the romantic dinner dates, and the weekly offerings at church. It is completely interconnected with the family and touches every aspect of a family’s functioning. So what happens when the job turns toxic?

My mother was a whistleblower and I personally witnessed the devastation in our lives from the toxic response from her employer. It destroyed my Mom’s health, family, retirement, and more. Not surprisingly, I started Encompass Work & Family to heal the wounds of dysfunction in the workplace and families. While I work with clients and organizations that face significant work and family impacts, — physicians, trauma responders, military members, athletes, and road warriors — the people and organizations that face the most deleterious effects are those who work in some form of workplace where abuse goes untreated.

Sadly, because people are afraid to lose their livelihood — especially in a tough economy — the abuse often gets ignored, like the stark naked emperor. Worse, the main target of the abuse puts up with the harassing behavior and begins to implode.

I have witnessed a wide variety of unhealthy treatment in the workplace. Some of it crossed the line into abuse and was a combination of stealth passive aggression (“crazy-making behavior”), overtly aggressive, and demeaning behavior. In each of these cases, the targeted person was a professional and was extremely loyal to their organization and work. The loyalty presented a key challenge because they remained on the job through the progression of the abuse.

Some people spent so many productive years in their organization that they were actually close to retiring, but succumbed to quitting before they received their retirement, bonus, and/or engaged in some form of self-sabotage. Underneath, the targeted employee was being manipulated to implode.

The phenomenon of targeted abuse is called “Mobbing” and is widely understood and addressed in Europe and has gained some recognition in the United States. It is similar to bullying in that some form of abuse is taking place, however, Mobbing is more than bullying because many people in the workplace begin copying and perpetuating the abuse (either silently by turning a blind eye or via mimicking similar behavior). It’s basically like a dangerous flu that the bully has spread to the other office staff.

One definition of Mobbing is “aggression used against ‘anyone’…using harassing, abusive, and often terrorizing behaviors” (Davenport et. al. 2005). The important thing to know is that it is INTENTIONAL and generally used to force a person out of the workplace. Because it happens over time and gains momentum to the point of no return, it is dangerous for the employee and has been referred to as a “cancer” in an organization. In some instances, Mobbing has led to death (suicide, major illness) or acts of serious workplace violence.

To understand the progression of Mobbing, its five phases include:

1 Conflict

2 Aggressive Acts

3 Management Involvement

4 Branding as Difficult or Mentally Ill

5 Expulsion

Some specific behaviors in the five phases described by Dr. Heinz Leymann may include:

1 Impacting Self Expression and Communication: Your supervisor or colleagues restrict your expression; you are constantly interrupted; you are yelled at or scolded; your work is constantly criticized; your private life is constantly criticized; you are terrorized on the phone; verbal or written threats are made.

2 Attack on One’s Social Relations: People do not speak to you anymore; you cannot speak to anyone and/or access is denied; your work space is isolated; colleagues are forbidden to talk to you; you are treated as invisible.

3 Attack on Your Reputation: People talk badly behind your back; unfounded rumors circulate; you are ridiculed; you are treated as if you’re mentally ill; you’re forced to undergo psychiatric evaluation; people imitate your walk, voice, gestures or ridicule you; your nationality is ridiculed; your decisions are always questioned; you are called demeaning names; sexual innuendo.

4 Attacks on the Quality of One’s Professional and Life Situation: There are no special tasks for you; supervisors take away assignments; you are given meaningless jobs to carry out; you are given tasks below your qualifications; you are continuously given new tasks; you are given tasks that affect your self-esteem; you are given tasks far beyond your qualifications as a way to discredit you; causing general damages that create financial costs to you; damaging your home or workplace.

5 Direct Attack on Person’s Health: You are forced to do a physically strenuous job; threats of physical violence are made; light violence is used to threaten you; physical abuse; outright sexual harassment.

Mobbing is more injurious than a physical wound because the effects are deep and can be traumatic. It also strikes all levels within an organization (top to bottom, side to side). Like a burn, it has been described as having three degrees of impact:

Mobbing of the 1st degree—The person escapes with minimal impact. They are rehabilitated in the same workplace or gain employment somewhere else.

Mobbing of the 2nd degree—Person cannot leave immediately and suffers from temporary or long-term mental and physical difficulty, most often experiencing difficulties re-entering the workforce.

Mobbing of the 3rd degree—The person is impacted to the point of not being able to return to the workplace. Physical and mental injuries are beyond rehabilitation unless specialized treatment protocol is applied.

Solutions to Mobbing are multi-pronged. Laws protect people in the fifth phase of Leymann’s description, but could still improve (some states are adopting more thorough protection). The media can help promote awareness. Further research can also help with building awareness and testing treatment and prevention measures. Management, human resources, and organizational consultants should have training in this area for prevention and abatement. While Employee Assistance Program (EAP) professionals are sought out during Mobbing situations, not all employers promote the same level of confidentiality, so the EAP professional may not always serve the employee’s best interest. In addition, they may perpetuate the blame on the employee by not conducting a systemic assessment or understanding the damage from Mobbing.

To contrast, Davenport describes a healthy workplace where “Leaders empower, affirm and appreciate their co-workers. Employees…participate in decision-making, feel appreciated, and have a sense of belonging.”

Toxicity in the workplace isn’t worth the cost on your life and your family. If you are suffering from any of these Mobbing effects, seek a position that honors you and your contributions. They exist. You can receive free employment counseling help from your local Career OneStop.

To learn more about Mobbing, Mobbing Syndrome, Identification and Prevention in your organization, please feel free to contact me at Kimberly AT


Davenport, N., Schwartz., R.D., Elliott, G.P. (2005). Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Iowa: Civil Society Publishing.

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