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James Ullrich

Corporate Stockholm Syndrome

The U.S. workplace suffers from a rapidly rising problem.

A phenomenon called “Corporate Stockholm Syndrome” is being observed more and more often in individuals who have experienced workplace trauma, and the concept is beginning to filter into the clinical awareness. This problem deserves some articulation.

Stockholm Syndrome refers to the psychological phenomenon often observed in hostage situations where the hostages start to identify with (and sympathize with) their captor, even though mistreated. The captor controls the life source (food, water, shelter, etc.) of the captive, and punishment/reward is received from the same source: the captor.

Because so much of our self-worth in modern times is defined and derived by work, we are at risk for experiencing Corporate Stockholm Syndrome when put into a certain work environment for long enough. Corporate Stockholm Syndrome can be defined as employees of a business beginning to identify with—and being deeply loyal to—an employer who mistreats them (defined in this situation as verbal abuse, demanding overly long hours, and generally ignoring the wellbeing and emotional needs of the employee). As with the captor/captive dynamic, the employer is certainly in control of the employee’s fate (they sign the much-needed paycheck and generally can terminate employment at any time).

The employee experiencing Corporate Stockholm Syndrome typically displays a tendency to become emotionally attached to the company to the detriment of their own emotional health. The employee will also rationalize to themselves and to others the employer’s poor treatment of them as necessary for the good of the organization as a whole, and angrily defend the employer’s actions when those actions are questioned by an outsider. In other words, denial of the obvious.

The company culture in which Corporate Stockholm Syndrome thrives will have certain traits. It will often tolerate—in fact implicitly encourage—employees to verbally abuse each other when someone isn’t seen as working hard enough or not being a “team player." The inculcation of the “company culture” is viewed as significantly important by the management. This is aimed at cultivating loyalty to the company while it has no similar loyalty to the emotional wellbeing of the employees.

There will be the occasional company-provided perks, of course, but these will be manipulative by design; a key aspect of inducing Stockholm Syndrome is the more powerful party providing both threats and kindness to the less powerful party. When these come from the same source, the psychological welfare of the lesser party can be more easily controlled.

The worker experiencing these symptoms is at risk for significant emotional trauma. Spending one's days under psychological pressure in such an environment is inherently unhealthy. Moreover, it is unhealthy for that worker’s friends and family members who will inevitably find themselves on the receiving end of misdirected anger, which must find a vent somewhere. Sadly this anger and its venting and usually finds the least powerful and least culpable target.

Breaking the cycle is hard, particularly in a culture that prizes work and wealth over emotional health, but abusers do not deserve loyalty. Peace of mind is too valuable to sell for any price.


About the Author

Former journalist James Ullrich is a psychotherapist in Seattle.