Neuroscience of Mental Health – The Effects of Workplace Bullying 

Summary: 

 

    • Bullying at work poses a risk of mental health problems

    • Bullying is a major source of stress at work

    • Workplace bullying impacts our cognitive abilities and performance 

#workplacebullying&harassment 

 

Bullying in the workplace is a serious issue, with one in four people in the UK have 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, ostracizing, 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 memory and experience 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, brain changes, and mental health. 

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 can cause severe distress for the person being bullied, being subjected to intimidation, degradation, and humiliation (6). It comes as no surprise that these forms of behaviours can be detrimental in the way they affect a person’s 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 ‘I am better than you’. Such as bullying targets being blue-collar and unskilled workers or bullying being most prevalent 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 our mental health. Bullying people, even if we sometimes feel may be harmless, can be seriously debilitating to a person, impacting things like cognition, emotions, stress and even potential neurological changes. We will explore some of these factors 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 about ourselves can turn into negative self-schemas (an internal representation and beliefs we hold about ourselves) which can affect our 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 also 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 can tarnish their reputation, and also the judgement that may follow them afterwards. Bullying in the workplace is still a stigmatising discussion and is linked with being one of the most neglected problems 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 to be extremely triggering if faced again. This can increase the risk of reconfirming already built-in beliefs, and unwarranted 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 ostracized 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. And can be felt the same way as we feel physical pain. The levels of stress and impact on our emotional and mental health, as we will see, can 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’, altering its activity and affecting emotions and body functions (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 our 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 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 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 daily tasks like remembering to answer emails, and multi-tasking amongst others. Accordingly, this reduces cognitive efficiency by interfering with abilities that require effortful information processing. The victim may then be seen as falling behind or incompetent. 

Similarly, there is evidence that people who are bullied in the workplace have a smaller hippocampus volume in the brain. Connections between the PFC and the hippocampus 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. In some cases, even being called a liar. 

Amygdala Region of the Brain

We know the hippocampus is the region of the brain dealing with episodic memory. 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 brain regions interact with the PFC to translate memory and emotion into particular outcomes. 

During a normal state, our amygdala is there to protect us and is activated during times we perceive external threats. However, our brains do not understand what is causing the threat. It doesn’t know if the threat is a bear running after us, or an employer bullying us. Therefore, the trigger response is the same. 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). 

Summary

Workplace bullying can underlie changes to the brain that can lead to cognitive, emotional and behavioural deficits, linked with heightened stress and threat responses. The impact of bullying is a serious issue, not least, 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. 

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. This in itself provided a reflection of their 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 with others, as well as improved productivity in the workplace (22).

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 (23).

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 then to move towards a work future where we are open about bullying in the workplace and to help raise awareness and understand the implications. Aiming for a more peaceful and healthy work environment for both employees and employers. Organisations may 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.

References:

 

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Author: Seiara Imanova

Author BIO:

Seiara 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 that 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.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/seiara-imanova-674178aa/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/imanova_seiara

Website: https://behindthestigma.buzzsprout.com/