Workplace Bullying: How to Identify & Deal with It

Published on: 03 Oct 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Bisma Anwar, LMHC
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Workplace bullying and adult bullying, in general, are big problems in the United States. In fact, 49% of Americans say that they’ve been impacted by bullying in the workplace. Workplace bullying describes a pattern of mistreatment within a work environment that includes behaviors like personal attacks, exclusion, and inappropriately harsh criticism. This type of bullying can have a lasting impact on a person’s health and well-being. 

While some bullies have multiple targets, others harass a single person. Workplace bullying isn’t always obvious, so a bully’s behavior may go undetected if it’s not reported. 

Just because this type of bullying often involves adults doesn’t mean that it’s something that people always know how to handle. The truth is, the psychological effects of bullying can be damaging and painful, regardless of age. Read on to learn how to identify and stop bullying at work.

Identifying Workplace Bullying

Bullying in the workplace can take many forms and creates a toxic workplace and environment. While some bullies may be openly hostile towards targets, others may behave in subtler ways. While the term harassment describes a single instance of behavior, bullying is persistent, repeated acts and aggression against a victim.

Types of bullying

  • Intimidation: A bully can intimidate a target by threatening or spying on them or by excluding them socially.
  • Verbal abuse: Verbal bullying can include harsh criticism, direct insults, mocking and offensive jokes, malicious gossip, verbal sexual harassment, and humiliation.
  • Work interference: Bullies may sabotage a coworker, blame them for mistakes, or take credit for work and ideas.
  • Retaliation: Sometimes when bullying is reported, it leads to increased workplace harassment resulting in heavier workloads, unfair scheduling, abusive conduct, or even the denial of a promotion.
  • Institutional bullying: Some workplaces have policies that are damaging to workers, including forced overtime or singling out workers who fail to meet goals.

Warning signs of workplace bullying

Ultimately, all types of bullying can share similar warning signs to a certain extent, but some of the following are specific to the workplace environment. Knowing the signs can help if you suspect someone is being bullied at work. It can also help you identify if you are dealing with a bully. 

  • Being ignored or excluded: The target of a workplace bully may be ignored by co-workers or excluded from events without an explanation.
  • Close monitoring: Bullies may constantly monitor a target’s work, making it difficult for them to complete tasks or efficiently do their job.
  • Unusual work assignments: Bullying behavior can include pointless work assignments or being given work without training. Failure to complete tasks may result in criticism, punishment, or ridicule.
  • Dismissing or minimizing concerns: When bullying is confronted or reported, the behavior may be downplayed by the workplace bully or other employees.
  • Missing items: Personal belongings or work-related items may inexplicably go missing.
  • Public embarrassment: Bullies often berate, humiliate, or mock targets in front of their coworkers, upper management, or customers.

Effects of Workplace Bullying on Health

Bullying in the workplace isn’t just uncomfortable and embarrassing. It can have a lasting impact on someone’s physical and emotional well-being. Research shows that workplace bullying can predict future mental health problems like anxiety and depression

Not only does bullying have lasting consequences for victims, it can also be damaging to the workplace environment and culture — even after the bullying has stopped.

Physical effects

Bullying at work can increase workplace stress and anxiety, which may lead to physical symptoms like:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and digestive issues
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Ulcers
  • Muscle aches
  • Heartburn

Research has also linked the stress of bullying to increased risk for Type II diabetes. People who suffer from chronic stress are more likely to develop heart disease, too. While bullying is sometimes treated as harmless, the fact is it can have a serious and lasting impact on the health of the victim.

Mental effects

Being the target of bullying can negatively affect both mood and emotional well-being. Effects may include:

  • A loss of self-esteem
  • Losing interest in activities
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Constantly dreading work 
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Panic attacks
  • Suicidal ideation 

These effects tend to become more pronounced the longer the bullying continues, and they can persist even after the behavior has stopped. Victims of bullying may need to work with mental health professionals to overcome self-doubt and rebuild self-confidence.

“If you or someone you care about has been bullied, we encourage you to speak with a licensed therapist to process your experience. When we experience something traumatizing or negative, we need to process the experience and integrate what has happened. The guidance of a trained licensed therapist can help you through this process and let you move forward with your life. You deserve support!”

Talkspace therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

How workplace bullying affects the workplace

When an employer fails to respond to bullying in an appropriate and timely way, it can have severely negative consequences, such as:

  • Higher rate of employee absences
  • Increased turnover rates
  • A decline in productivity 
  • Decreased morale
  • Lost trust of employees
  • Legal action costs

Effects on job performance

Bullying is a significant distraction that can interfere with a person’s ability to do their job. When someone’s being bullied, they may be less productive and spend their time:

  • Trying to avoid the bully
  • Worrying about future abuse
  • Struggling with anxiety
  • Seeking support from co-workers
  • Attempting to defend themselves from the bully

Ongoing harassment from a bully can be traumatizing, making it difficult for bullied workers to focus on tasks. People who are bullied at work are more likely to make mistakes and will often take longer to complete their work, which can decrease the productivity of the entire team.

Effects on workplace environment

Bullying can be disruptive to the entire workplace culture and have a negative impact on all workers, even those who aren’t being bullied. It creates a hostile work environment for all. Workplace bullying can:

  • Increase employee turnover 
  • Harm the company’s public image
  • Interfere with employee teamwork
  • Encourage poor behavior in employees
  • Lead to a hostile work environment

How to Deal with Workplace Bullying 

When people are targeted by bullies at work, they often feel helpless. If you’ve been the victim of workplace bullying, it’s important to remember that you’re not at fault. The right strategies and tools can help you cope with a bully’s behavior and protect your wellbeing.

  • Document the bullying: Write down the details of the event every time you’re bullied at work. Be sure to include the time and date of the incident and the nature of what happened. Detail the names of workers who may have witnessed the bullying in your reports.
  • Lay down boundaries: The next time a bully does something inappropriate, make it clear that you won’t tolerate this treatment any longer. Let them know that you’ll be reporting the behavior, and if it continues, you’re ready and willing to escalate things.
  • Report bullying: Report any intimidating or inappropriate behavior to your employer if a bully fails to respect your boundaries. Provide the employer with documentation of the abuse and let them know that you expect the behavior to be dealt with immediately. 
  • Seek outside support: It can be tough to stand up to a bully’s bad behavior, which is why a strong support system is crucial. Talk to friends, family members, or mental health professionals about what you’re going through. In extreme cases, if you’re not seeing results or getting the support you need from your employer, you might need to be prepared to seek legal counsel. 

Helping Someone Deal with Workplace Bullying

It isn’t always easy to speak up when you see bullying in the workplace. You may be afraid that confronting a bully will make you a target, but it’s important to remember that ignoring bullying will only make the issue worse. 

Don’t hesitate to report bullying to your employer, even if you weren’t directly impacted. If one of your coworkers is being repeatedly bullied, your report could significantly improve their life. 

It’s common for bullies to gaslight targets by denying or diminishing their actions and behaviors. This makes some bullying victims hesitant to report abuse. When multiple people speak up about bullying, it’s much harder for bullies to deny, defend, or continue their bad behavior. 

“If you’re the victim of workplace bullying, knowing your rights and the resources available to you can be critical to determine the next steps needed to heal. Speaking with a therapist about your experience and your options, as well as the pros and cons of those options, may help you take the next right step for you.”

Talkspace therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

The effects of workplace bullying aren’t just limited to victims. When there’s a bully in any environment, it harms everyone. That’s why it’s crucial for companies to establish policies aimed at how to prevent bullying.

If you’re being bullied at work, we know how hard it can be to speak up. Don’t be afraid to take steps to protect your mental health and well-being. With a strong support system, you can recover from bullying and improve your work environment.

If you feel that you’re dealing with workplace bullying, a toxic workplace, and don’t have a good support system, you might want to consider therapy and access a mental health professional who can help you develop a strategy. 

Therapy can offer you guidance and support from experienced mental health experts. You deserve to live and work in a peaceful, safe environment. Nobody has the right to take those things from you. Learning to navigate the hostility you’re facing can help you realize that you’re strong and can face anything, even your bully. 

Talkspace is a therapy platform that can help you get the critical therapy you need to manage workplace bullying. Talk to an online therapist today.


1. 2021 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey. Published 2021. Accessed July 17, 2022.  

2. Einarsen S, Nielsen M. Workplace bullying as an antecedent of mental health problems: a five-year prospective and representative study. Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 2014;88(2):131-142. doi:10.1007/s00420-014-0944-7. Accessed July 17, 2022.

3. Xu T, Magnusson Hanson L, Lange T et al. Workplace bullying and violence as risk factors for type 2 diabetes: a multicohort study and meta-analysis. Diabetologia. 2017;61(1):75-83. doi:10.1007/s00125-017-4480-3. Accessed July 17, 2022.

4. McKay R, Fratzl J. A Cause of Failure in Addressing Workplace Bullying: Trauma and the Employee. International Journal of Business and Social Science. 2011;2. Accessed July 17, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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