• Victims of workplace bullying twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts

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  • 22 Sep 2015
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Hostile working environments often overlooked as cause of mental health issues, research suggests

Employees who fall victim to bullying in the workplace are more likely to contemplate suicide, than those who do not work in a hostile working environment, a Norwegian study suggests.  

In a nationally representative sample of 1850 people, workers were followed from 2005 and 2010. While less than five per cent of participants reported thoughts of suicide during this time, they were around twice as likely to do so after being victims of workplace bullying.

Morten Birkeland Nielsen, lead author of the paper and professor at the National Institute of Occupational Health and the University of Bergen, said the longitudinal study was evident of the impact workplace environments have on people’s mental health.

"Our study adds to the understanding of how bullying is related to thoughts about suicide by showing that the perception of being bullied at work actually is a precursor of suicidal ideation and not a consequence," he said.

For the purpose of the research, researchers defined the three main characteristics of workplace bullying: an employee must be the target of systematic unwanted social behaviour; the exposure must occur over a prolonged period of time, often with increasing frequency and intensity; and targets will feel they can't escape the situation or stop unwanted treatment.

Over the course of the study, the average proportion of workers reporting bullying ranged from 4.2 per cent to 4.6 per cent, while the prevalence of suicidal thoughts varied from 3.9 per cent to 4.9 per cent.

The research suggests that there were no major differences in reports of bullying or suicidal thoughts based on workers' gender or age, but Nielsen said one limitation of the study was its reliance on participants to accurately recall and report any exposure to bullying or thoughts of suicide: "There are probably some workers who are more likely to consider suicide due to specific predispositions, whereas others are more likely to consider suicide due to their recent exposure to bullying," he said.

Speaking to Reuters Health, Gary Namie, director of the US-based Workplace Bullying Institute, said that family and financial problems have often been considered the main causes of mental health issues, but experiencing sustained mistreatment at work might be the tipping point for some people towards considering suicide.

He suggests that office problems merit a more serious look: "Being bullied is one cause of thinking about taking one's life," he said.

"Being bullied led to suicidal ideation and not the opposite - this study important for that reason."

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  • This is the sad conclusion for many people who’ve been bullied at work.

    I became so concerned about the targets of bullying (their stress levels, their need to get their careers back, their need to get the bullying to stop) – I wrote a book to help them called “Not All Bullies Yell and Throw Things: How to Survive a Subtle Workplace Bully.” In it I include help to lower the stress levels and strategies to get the bullying to stop. The sooner you can get the bullying to stop, the better off you’ll be. (And confronting the bully isn’t always a good option!)

    The book is on Amazon.uk at this short link: http://amzn.to/1It9IPo

    ~Glory Borgeson,

    Author