Neuroscience of Mental Health – The Effects of Workplace Bullying (perspective article)


  • Bullying is a known major source of stress at work
  • Bullying at work poses a risk of mental health problems
  • Workplace bullying can impact cognitive abilities and performance 


Bullying in the workplace is a serious issue, with one in four people in the UK having experienced bullying, while one in five Americans have (1). In the workplace, bullying is often referred to as harassment, abuse or peer abuse (2). Employers, a co-worker, groups of co-workers, and even customers can commit workplace bullying. A large-scale, nationwide survey looking into workplace bullying in the UK, found that both employees and supervisors were more prone to be exposed to acts of bullying than their superiors, i.e., their managers (3). 

In the workplace, bullying is more common through insults, ostracising, inappropriate gestures, and intentionally intimidating or isolating individuals or groups. Although it can also be physical as well, for example through unwanted sexual touch and sexual attention (4). One aspect of being a target of bullying is that the memories and experiences can be enduring psychologically and physiologically, such that the impact can be carried with the person outside of work. 

This article focuses on the impact of workplace bullying on an individual’s health through stress, mental health and potential brain changes. 

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is defined as “the repetitive and systematic engagement of interpersonally abusive behaviours that negatively affect both the targeted individual and the work organisation” (5). The action of bullying can cause severe distress for the person being bullied, being subjected to intimidation, degradation, and humiliation (6). Such forms of behaviours can be detrimental in the way they affect well-being, affecting not only the person’s emotional and physical well-being, but also their performance.

The reasons why people bully are complex and can be an interplay of factors, such as the individual doing the bullying wanting to have some form of power over particular individuals. For example, unwanted sexual attention is reported by 8% of women between the ages of 25 and 34 in the workplace (7). Bullying can also stem from systemic issues such as gender bias, racism, jealousy or competitiveness, and a sense of ‘elevated status’. One study found bullying to be most prevalent among blue-collar and unskilled workers, and among men aged 25-34 without a college degree (7).

An interdisciplinary approach 

Recently, neuroscientific research has started to understand the impact that bullying can have on the brain and on mental health. Bullying people, even if we sometimes feel it may be harmless, can be seriously debilitating to a person, impacting cognition, emotional regulation, stress, and even potential neurological changes. Some of these factors are explored below. 

Bullying and Mental Health

The impact of bullying on our mental health is not one to be taken lightly. It may strongly influence core beliefs about ourselves, such as “I am not good enough” or “I am useless and stupid”, leading to feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem and confidence (8). These beliefs can turn into negative self-schemas (an internal representation of the beliefs we hold about ourselves) which can affect social relationships, and how we behave with others around us, leaving us more prone to isolation and feelings of anxiety and depression (9). 

Bullying can also lead to feelings of shame which have been strongly linked with depression in the past (10). It can be deeply embarrassing for one’s own self-worth to be bullied. For this reason, many individuals may hold back from talking about and reporting bullying at work, not only due to perceived shame, but because of a perceived image of them that may tarnish their reputation. Also, the judgement that may follow them afterwards. Bullying in the workplace is still a stigmatising discussion, and is linked with being a neglected problem in the realm of employment relations. 

Similarly, individuals that may have been bullied in the past, such as during their high school years, can find the experience of bullying to be extremely triggering if faced again. This can increase the risk of reconfirming already built-in beliefs, and attitudes towards themselves from suffering past bullying trauma (11). Similarly, it can also increase the risk of post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders, such as general anxiety or social anxiety. One study found that every 3 out of 4 respondents who were bullied in the workplace, fit the criteria of post-traumatic stress disorder (12). 

Another research study using neuroimaging technology investigating social exclusion demonstrated that when an individual feels isolated or ostracised as a result of bullying, the neural regions which are related to physical pain are activated, as if encountering the same experience as physical pain (13). We might surmise that bullying hurts. The levels of stress and distress can impact on our emotional and mental health, and as we will see, may also impact our brain leading to changes in functioning. 

Bullying and Stress 

The impact of chronic stress on the individual body has been shown to be extremely damaging. Chronic stress simply means the feelings of stress are persistent. This can have the ability to ‘rewire the brain’; by this we mean local changes in neural connectivity that happen throughout the lifespan. When we learn something new, the connections between relevant neurons communicating with each other are strengthened. This ability of the brain to ‘re-organise’ itself, can be adaptive or maladaptive (14).

When our bodies are under extreme or chronic stress, our adrenal glands, located at the top of our kidneys, release a hormone known as cortisol, which is important for stress regulation. Every morning when we wake up, our level of cortisol is usually at peak, to help kick start our day. As the day goes on, however, naturally our cortisol levels should drop. 

One study found that in the beginning, bullying causes an increase in the amount of cortisol, leading to higher levels of arousal. Intense or chronic stress and compromised environments can lead to an overproduction of cortisol. But eventually, as the bullying persists, the cortisol levels reduce or ‘crash’, implicating an individual’s ability to function effectively as a result (15). Chronic fatigue and stress disorders are associated with lower cortisol levels during the daytime (16). This crash not only impacts performance, but also cognitive processes regulated by our prefrontal cortex.

Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) and Hippocampus Regions of the Brain

Our prefrontal cortex is a region of the brain commonly associated with cognitive processes, such as complex tasks, planning, decision-making, and our working memory. Our working memory is short-term memory, which allows us to process new information, act on tasks at hand, and remember activities needed to be done in the short term (17). When exposed to social stressors such as bullying, this can impair working memory performance (18). Implicating agility in daily tasks. Accordingly, this reduces cognitive efficiency by interfering with abilities that require effortful information processing. The victim of bullying may then be seen as falling behind their work, or incompetent. 

Similarly, there is some evidence that people who are bullied have a smaller hippocampus volume. Connections between the PFC and the hippocampus region of the brain are particularly important for episodic memory, whereby our hippocampus plays an integral role in our episodic processes, which are those memories that help us remember facts and events. (19). This is important because people who encounter bullying have been known to have a hard time recalling events, resorting to feelings of blacking out or not remembering. Hence recall of events can be difficult and the victim can seem inarticulate when replaying what has happened to them in the past. This in turn can increase the already existing stigma of not being able to report bullying effectively.  

Amygdala, Putamen and Caudate Regions of the Brain

We know the hippocampus is involved with episodic memory processes. It is the case that the amygdala region of the brain is specialised for input and processing of emotion, such as our response to fear. During emotional reactions, these two regions of the brain interact with the PFC to translate memory and emotion into particular outcomes. During a normal state, part of the amygdala function is detection of threat and activation of appropriate fear-related behaviours, processing the associated emotions and memories, activated during times that we perceive external threats or danger.

However, our brains do not understand what is causing the threat; it does not know if the threat is a bear running after us, or an employer bullying us. Therefore, the trigger response is the same. Our brain activation profile when the amygdala is part of the activation, may be adverse, if the circumstances recruiting it are adverse, such as bullying. So, how much the amygdala is involved, biases towards interpreting it as even more awful. Increased amygdala activation can result in dysregulated emotional responses, which trickle to symptoms of fear and anxiety, and can strengthen negative memories (20).

Links with the prefrontal cortex which communicates with the amygdala can also be impaired, diminishing our decision-making ability and implicating our ability to rationally process emotion-based information (21). Interestingly, recent research by King’s College London using longitudinal IMAGEN study and neuroimaging data, asked whether ‘adolescent brain development is involved in mediating the effect of peer victimization on psychopathology’? They found that the experience of chronic peer victimisation during adolescence might induce deviations from normative brain development and that this had implications for psychopathology in adulthood.

Why is this relevant? Many studies have shown peer victimization trajectories (childhood -> adolescence) is associated with higher rates of psychopathology in adulthood (22). Specifically brain volume changes in the Caudate and Putamen associated with depression, generalised anxiety, and hyperactivity symptoms, contributing to a range of externalising and internalising symptoms for the sufferer. And that high stress may be a predictor of bullying behaviours, and that bullying behaviours may provoke others to engage in similar behaviours (23).


Workplace bullying can underlie changes to brain function that may lead to cognitive, emotional and behavioural deficits, linked with heightened stress and threat responses. The impact of bullying is a serious issue, leaving some victims struggling with poor self-esteem, anxiety and even depression. As a result, absenteeism and turnover among employees have been shown to increase, and employee work and organisations can be negatively impacted. 

Consideration of workplace bullying in the context of individual dignity, and the practice of values-based leadership seems fundamental. For example, by enabling a work environment where employees feel safe enough to be present and talk about what may be happening to them, as well as establishing or extending existing company policy so that it is accessible and transparent. Thus, creating a work culture that is embedded in employee well-being; a shift to enabling both psychological and physiological safety (24).

One longitudinal study that examined the impact of organisations that adopt health and wellbeing programmes found that from a total of 64 different organisations, employees who participated in health and wellbeing programs had a better relationship with their co-workers, and were less likely to experience bullying than those who did not. The quality of co-worker relationships was a reflection of overall job satisfaction as well. Hence, the more organisations engage in building quality relationships and community, the more it would appear to correlate with a healthier environment, as well as improved productivity in the workplace (25).

For many of us, work is a big part of who we are. We spend at least 8 hours of our day working and being within that environment. It seems important to move towards a work future where we are open about bullying in the workplace and to help raise awareness and understand the implications for physical and mental health. Organisations would do well to consider establishing a work culture that is metaphorically similar to that of nurturing plants. If all the right conditions are applied, while also showing a duty of care, it could aid and support a greater opportunity for employees and organisations to grow and flourish.


  1. Srabstein, J. C., & Leventhal, B. L. (2010). Prevention of bullying-related morbidity and mortality: a call for public health policies. Bulletin of the World Health Organisation, 88, 403-404.
  2. Fuller, Robert W. (2006). All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity. San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  3. Hoel, H., Cooper, C. L., & Faragher, B. (2001). The experience of bullying in Great Britain: The impact of organizational status. European journal of work and organizational psychology, 10(4), 443-465.
  4. Namie, G. (2007). The challenge of workplace bullying. Employment Relations Today, 34(2), 43.
  5. Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2015). Workplace bullying: a tale of adverse consequences. Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 12(1-2), 32.
  6. Namie, G. (2007). The challenge of workplace bullying. Employment Relations Today, 34(2), 43.
  8. O’Moore, M., & Kirkham, C. (2001). Self‐esteem and its relationship to bullying behavior. Aggressive Behavior: Official Journal of the International Society for Research on Aggression, 27(4), 269-283.
  9. Lewicki, P. (1984). Self-schema and social information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(6), 1177.
  10. Lewis, D. (2004). Bullying at work: The impact of shame among university and college lecturers. British Journal of Guidance & Counseling, 32(3), 281-299.
  11. Carney, J. V. (2008). Perceptions of bullying and associated trauma during adolescence. Professional School Counseling, 11(3), 2156759X0801100304.
  12. Verkuil, B., Atasayi, S., & Molendijk, M. L. (2015). Workplace bullying and mental health: a meta-analysis on cross-sectional and longitudinal data. PloS one, 10(8), e0135225.
  13. Perino, M. T., Guassi Moreira, J. F., & Telzer, E. H. (2019). Links between adolescent bullying and neural activation to viewing social exclusion. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 19(6), 1467-1478.
  14. Arcadepani, F. B., Eskenazi, D. Y., Fidalgo, T. M., & Hong, J. S. (2021). An exploration of the link between bullying perpetration and substance use: A review of the literature. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 22(1), 207-214.
  15. Cacha, L. A., Poznanski, R. R., Latif, A. Z., & Ariff, T. M. (2019). Psychophysiology of chronic stress: An example of mind-body interaction. NeuroQuantology, 17(7), 53-63.
  16. Hansen, Å. M., Hogh, A., Persson, R., Karlson, B., Garde, A. H., & Ørbaek, P. (2006). Bullying at work, health outcomes, and physiological stress response. Journal of psychosomatic research, 60(1), 63-72.
  17. Hansen, Å. M., Hogh, A., Persson, R., Karlson, B., Garde, A. H., & Ørbaek, P. (2006). Bullying at work, health outcomes, and physiological stress response. Journal of psychosomatic research, 60(1), 63-72.
  18. Baddeley, A. (2010). Working memory. Current Biology, 20(4), R136-R140.
  19. The Relationship of Anxiety and Stress With Working Memory Performance in a Large Non-depressed Sample
  20. Nolfe, G., Cirillo, M., Iavarone, A., Negro, A., Garofalo, E., Cotena, A., … & Cirillo, S. (2018). Bullying at workplace and brain-imaging correlates. Journal of clinical medicine, 7(8), 200
  21. Rossouw, P. (2013). defining bullying: the role of neurobiological markers. International journal of neuropsychotherapy, 1(1), 2-8.
  22. Samnani, A., K. & Singh, P. 20 Years of workplace bullying research: A review of the antecedents and consequences of bullying in the workplace. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17 (2012) 581–589.
  23. Quinlan et al., 2020. Peer victimization and its impact on adolescent brain development and psychopathology. Molecular Psychiatry 25, 3066–3076.
  24. Bulutlar, F., & Öz, E. Ü. (2009). The effects of ethical climates on bullying behaviour in the workplace. Journal of Business ethics, 86(3), 273-295.
  25. Fida, R., Game, A., Stepanek, M., & Gendronneau, C. (2022). Longitudinal effects of engagement with workplace health programmes on employee outcomes: a relational perspective. British Journal of Management, 33(4), 1905-1923.

This article expresses a new perspective on existing problems, prevalent notions and fundamental concepts relating to existing research and future directions on the topic, and includes personal opinion. It is designed to open up conversation, exploration and debate.

Author BIO:

Seiara Imanova is a graduate of King’s College London, completing her Master’s in Psychology and Neuroscience of Mental Health. She has a particular interest in questioning the medical model of mental disorders and looking into mystical experiences of altered states of consciousness. She is a member of the Applied Neuroscience Association and a part of the Student Minds Panel; both non-profit organisations in the UK, the former spreading neuroscience for social good, and the latter helping non-traditional learners’ mental health in UK universities. She is also part of the founding member team as a Community Manager at The Bureau Dubai, a female-focused co-working space which focuses on enabling the personal and career growth of female entrepreneurs. Additionally, Seiara is the creator, producer and host of the Behind the Stigma Podcast where she speaks to researchers in the field and helps translate scientific research into lay terms. Seiara loves raving, techno music and ecstatic dancing.




Comments are closed.