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Psychological Bullying in the Workplace: How to Protect Yourself

Psychological Bullying in the Workplace: How to Protect Yourself

Bullying in the workplace can take many forms, but psychological bullying is one of the most insidious types. This type of bullying can be tough to spot, and even tougher to deal with, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself.

In this article, we'll discuss how to constitute psychological harassment and what steps you can take to protect yourself from it.

What Constitutes Psychological Harassment?

According to a recent study, 44% of American workers have experienced harassment at work. 1

Psychological harassment is any repeated or vexatious behavior that causes psychological stress or suffering. This unwanted conduct may include things like threatening or intimidating behavior, repeated name-calling or put-downs, and purposeful isolation.

While one-off instances often are not considered bullying, repeated behavior or a single serious incident that has a lasting impact can constitute psychological harassment.

Examples of Psychological Harassment in the Workplace

Psychological harassment at work can take many forms. Whatever the specific form it takes, psychological harassment is always designed to make the victim feel uncomfortable, threatened, or afraid. Here we list a few most common examples.


Intimidation at work is characterized by one employee feeling threatened or harassed by another. Intimidation may be overt, such as threats or verbal abuse, or it may be more subtle, such as undermining an individual's work or limiting their opportunity to grow within the company. In extreme cases, intimidation can lead to physical violence.


Micromanagement is when a manager or supervisor closely controls and monitors an employee's work. This can involve everything from checking in too frequently to offering constant criticism. It can often be evident in a hostile work environment where there is a lack of trust between managers and employees.

Social ostracism

Social ostracism is the act of excluding someone from social or work-related activities. It can be overt, like when someone is explicitly excluded from a meeting or project, or it can be more subtle, like when someone is constantly left out of office social events.

Effects of Psychological Harassment in the Workplace

Psychological harassment at work can have a number of deleterious effects on both the individuals involved and the company as a whole.

Psychological and physical problems

Emotionally or verbally abused employees are more likely to suffer from negative effects on their psychological integrity - they may have anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Their physical integrity may be compromised too - they may experience headaches, stomach trouble, and sleep disorders. In extreme cases, workplace harassment can even lead to suicidal ideation and self-harm.

Poor focus and bad decision-making

When faced with emotional harassment, victims may become preoccupied with it, leading to poorer work performance. Additionally, the stress and anxiety caused by psychological harassment can impair cognitive functioning, making it difficult to think clearly and make good decisions.

Increased absenteeism and turnover

When workers feel unsafe or uncomfortable at work, they may start skipping days or coming in late. In some cases, they may even quit their job entirely. The above-mentioned report found that 34% of surveyed individuals have left their job because of unresolved harassment issues. This absenteeism and higher turnover rates can be costly for businesses.

How to Prevent Psychological Harassment in the Workplace

Psychological harassment at work can take many shapes and forms, from subtle snubs to overt threats. It can be difficult to deal with, and it often goes unnoticed by employers. However, there are several things you can do to prevent psychological harassment in the office.

Develop clarity

To define psychological harassment, consider the intent of the behavior in question. If the behavior is designed to intimidate or humiliate another person, then it is likely to be considered harassment. Additionally, the frequency and severity of the behavior are also important. If the behavior is ongoing and has a detrimental effect on the victim's mental health, then it constitutes harassment.

Promote open communication

This means creating an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up about their experiences. Open communication can help to identify problems early on before they escalate into more serious incidents. In the previously mentioned report, it was found that 85% of employees are more likely to report harassment if they have an anonymous channel, therefore, managers should create safe and open paths of communication.

Provide training

While it is important for employers to take steps to prevent workplace bullying from happening in the first place, it is also essential to provide employees with training on what constitutes workplace bullying and how to identify it. Employees should be made aware of the company's policies on workplace harassment and should know how to report any incidents that they witness or experience.

How to Deal with Mental Harassment in the Workplace

When it comes to mental harassment in the workplace, it's important to take action immediately.

Be aware of the signs

48% of American workers have witnessed others experience harassment at work. This shows that the signs are usually easy to spot. If an individual suddenly becomes withdrawn or unengaged with their work, it may be a sign that they are feeling intimidated. Another red flag is if an employee starts making frequent mistakes or exhibiting unusually poor performance. This can be a sign of anxiety or stress caused by harassment.

Speak up

If you notice any of the above-mentioned changes in a coworker, take the time to talk to them and see if they are okay. If you're not sure whether what you've witnessed constitutes harassment, trust your gut and initiate the conversation anyway to gain clarity.

Defuse the situation

When you witness mental harassment at work, it is important to confront the bully in a professional manner. Approach the bully and calmly explain that their behavior is not acceptable. It is important to remain calm and collected during this conversation, as getting angry will only escalate the situation.

How to Report Mental Harassment in the Workplace

Only 50% of survey workers in the previously mentioned study have reported harassment. If you feel like you are being harassed at work, it is important to report it as quickly as possible:

  • Try to resolve the issue directly with the person who is harassing you.
  • If that does not work, or if you feel unsafe, report the harassment to your employer. They are required by law to investigate any reports of harassment and take appropriate action.
  • To file a report, start by talking to your human resources department or your supervisor.
  • If they do not take your complaint seriously, you can file a report with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the US or contact Acas (UK). 2,3

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Psychological Harassment a Crime?

There is no definitive answer to this question as it depends on the country and legal system in question. Unlike physical harassment, which leaves visible bruises, psychological harassment can be harder to detect and may not be apparent to outsiders.

Despite the serious impacts of this type of bullying, however, in the US, there is no federal law that specifically prohibits psychological harassment.

Therefore, it is important for workplaces to have their own policies in place to protect employees from this type of mistreatment.

Can You Sue for Psychological Harassment?

In the United States, for instance, psychological harassment is not a crime. However, there are a few exceptions. For example, if the harassment takes the form of slander or libel, then it may be possible to sue for defamation.

Additionally, if the harassment is part of a pattern of behavior that constitutes stalking or sexual harassment, then it may be possible to bring criminal charges.

Finally, if you suspect that you are discriminated against (bullied due to a protected characteristic such as race), you may be able to take legal action.

What Is Emotional Abuse from a Boss?

Emotional harassment from a boss can take various forms, including:

  • Yelling. It's a way to control and dominate employees by using fear, intimidation, and shame. Yelling can damage relationships, and cause physical and emotional distress.
  • Making unreasonable demands. If an individual is consistently being asked to do things that are beyond their scope of abilities or that are not reasonably within their job description, such behavior can create a harmful work environment.
  • Shifting blame. A common way bosses shift blame is by making themselves seem like they are victims of circumstance, rather than responsible for their own actions. For example, a boss might say "I'm so stressed out because of all the extra work you're not doing" when employees are not meeting expectations.

How Do You Deal with an Emotionally Abusive Coworker?

Dealing with an emotionally abusive coworker can be difficult. It is important to remember that you are not alone and that there are steps you can take to protect yourself:

  • Document the abuse. This can be done by keeping a journal of incidents or by saving emails or other communications. This documentation will be important if you decide to take action against the abuser.
  • Build a support network of friends, family, or coworkers who can offer emotional support and practical advice.
  • Reach out to professional resources such as a therapist or counselor who can help you deal with the effects of the abuse.


1 All Voices, 2021. The State of Workplace Harassment 2021.

2 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

3 The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.

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