Bullying

The Hidden Victims of Workplace Bullying: Family Members

Bullying can lead to secondary trauma.

Posted Oct 15, 2016

Workplace bullying is psychologically abusive and intimidating behavior.  Supervisors tend to be the most common workplace bullies.  Bullying can be expressed directly in the form of verbal aggression and unreasonable demands, or expressed indirectly by sabotage, or rumor mongering.  The impact on the worker is hardly negligible, spanning from psychological symptoms (such as clinical depression, stress, anxiety) to medical conditions (including headaches, and cardiovascular strain that can increase the risk for a heart attack). 

The stressed parent leads to a stressed family unit.  Beyond the employee there is a set of hidden victims: the family members of the bullied worker who carries the psychological/medical effects home.  Typical effects on the bullied worker included: frustration, helplessness, loss of self-confidence, severe anxiety or even panic attacks, insomnia, loss of appetite, headaches, high blood pressure, and poor concentration.  In 2014, the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) estimated that 27% of U.S. workers or 65.6 million people were currently or had previously experienced bullying at work.  Given the sheer number of this many affected workers, it is not unreasonable to assume that many millions of children and spouses may also be the victims of the “downstream” effect of the workplace bully.

Workplace Bullying Creates Secondary Trauma.  The concept of secondary (or vicarious) trauma is a well-recognized syndrome in post-war-zone deployment research.  The service person’s exposure to war-zone trauma produces post-deployment anxiety, depression, and fearfulness.  Upon re-entry into the family unit, there can be a transmission of these trauma symptoms to spouses and children.  Among children of deployed parents, the effects of secondary trauma have included anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, and poor functioning in school and with peers.  Similarly, the workplace traumatized bullied parent can transmit emotional distress onto family members leading to a tense and stressed family environment. Such psychological tension and distress can also produce secondary trauma effects on the children and spouses.

Protections against workplace bullying secondary trauma.  Just as you would protect your family against the spread of an infectious viral or bacterial contagion, so should you protect them against the psychological contagions of workplace bullying. 

  • Do not underestimate the impact of workplace bullying upon you and your family
  • You must take care of the psychological and physical effects you experience as a result of the workplace bullying; your health is a priority
  • Seek medical and professional help sooner rather than later if you cannot manage your symptoms

Children do not thrive in a stressed family environment.  Be proactive in ways to protect your kids from the reach of the workplace bully:

  • Talk to your spouse openly about the effects of the bullying and how it may be impacting the relationship
  • Take an inventory of your family life and your children’s functioning at school and with peers, and identify any vicarious trauma effects and address them
  • Consider family therapy to address the stresses and strains on the family and how to manage them
  • Consider reaching out to your religious group or leader to assist you and your family in coping with the bullying
  • Problem solve to find ways to protect your relationship and your children from its effects (e.g., taking hikes together, watching a ballgame together, playing video games, or any activity that has you and your family engaged in something fun and stress reducing)
  • Talk to your children, in age-appropriate ways, to allow them to understand why you may have been withdrawn or lost your temper--the unknown is more frightening than the known
  • If you are a single parent, reach out to others to talk to and help you identify and explore ways to keep yourself and your children psychologically safe

Use your strengths to combat the effects of bullying.  Bullies need to dominate and control situations.  They want to intimidate others and appear powerful.  In addition, they generally have a negative self image.  There are some psychological characteristics demonstrated by targets of bullying that have been identified as threatening to the bully.  These include: being independent; having technical skills, good social skills; being ethical and honest; and being collaborative and non-confrontational.  

  • Use these traits as bounce back power (or resilience) from the effects of bullying
    • Focus on yourself as the change agent in your life, not the organization where you work.  This is critical given that the overwhelming majority of employers may do nothing, minimize, side with the bully, or retaliate.
    • Actively explore alternate work options (whether it is a transfer or joining another organization).
    • Be creative in considering other options even if they seem unrealistic.  This process gives you back control over your life and boosts self-efficacy and self-determination.
  • Focus on yourself as the change agent in your life, not the organization where you work.  This is critical given that the overwhelming majority of employers may do nothing, minimize, side with the bully, or retaliate.
  • Actively explore alternate work options (whether it is a transfer or joining another organization).
  • Be creative in considering other options even if they seem unrealistic.  This process gives you back control over your life and boosts self-efficacy and self-determination.

Zero-Tolerance for Workplace Bullies.  Employers should not tolerate workplace bullies; yet as the WBI 2014 survey found, the majority of employers deny, discount, encourage, rationalize, or defend workplace bullying.  In public-sector organizations, despite policies against workplace bullying and “healthy workplace initiatives,” the process of addressing workplace bullying becomes mired in a lengthy bureaucratic process during which time the bullied employee remains “under the thumb” of the bully.

Bullying behavior can have an insidious and long-standing impact on the target and their families.  Given employers’ lack of responsiveness, the most immediate remedy to the pernicious effects of workplace bullies, as with school bullies, may be to create a zero-tolerance public awareness movement against workplace bullies.

Resources :

http://www.apaexcellence.org/resource/special-topics/workplace-bullying

http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/wbi-2014-us-survey/