Emotional abuse at work is something that’s been a long-term problem with long-term impacts. Constantly on the rise, what can we and our employers do to prevent a hostile work environment?

Emotional abuse encompasses a wide variety of behaviours, usually causing a hefty amount of stress for the targeted individual. Emotional abuse can be intentional or unintentional and in some cases can only be a symptom of a much larger problem that could indicate a toxic working environment.

In 2019 a survey was conducted with 2000 participants, the results showing that 1 in 4 of us feel bullied at the workplace, 23% of the British workforce has been bullied in the workplace and a further 25% have been made to feel left out in the workplace, with even more studies being conducted recently that reveal workplace emotional abuse to be an ever-growing problem.

Are you suffering from workplace abuse?

For some people, abuse at the workplace has simply become a part of life. While abuse itself is something that’s increasingly better documented and strived against in recent years, such cases in the workplace have remained a quiet but increasingly problematic issue. Recent research from the NEOMA Business School, Rotterdam School of Management and Durham University Business School has shown that the problem persists today, with emotional abuse being trivialised and even unintentionally dished out and normalised in the workplace.

Examples of noticed or unnoticed emotional abuse in the workplace can include:

  • Yelling or screaming
  • Derogatory name calling
  • “Silent treatment”
  • withholding necessary information
  • aggressive eye contact
  • negative rumours
  • outbursts of anger
  • public ridicule

These are all referenced as harmful behaviours that can contribute to a hostile work environment, or are outright abusive in or out the workplace by Loraleigh Keashly, a professor who was one of the original starters for the conversation concerning emotional abuse at the workplace with a 1997 study that was one of the first to explore the issue. Loraleigh did extensive research into the topic, publishing and contributing to a variety of studies that are still cited today.

On top of the obvious signs, emotional abuse in the workplace can follow a common pattern alongside abuse in other environments. An abuse victim at work might be told they “can’t do any better” in terms of their job rather than their partner if the abuse was found at home instead. In fact, if you were to look at signs of an abusive relationship, a lot of the criteria can overlap with abusive behaviour in the workplace.

Aside from the physical abuse, looking at this article on the topic can show some overlapping symptoms of an abusive relationship and a hostile work environment. Examples can include being put down publicly, threatened and consistently want to know where you are and what you’re doing. On top of all that, some of the coping mechanisms seen in abusive relationships can directly correlate with those who try and rationalise their own poor treatment at work, “things will get better” and ”I’m scared of what might happen if I leave” are some of the emotions someone might be feeling in relation to their harmful workplace.

What to do if you’re being emotionally abused at work

You’re not powerless in a situation like this, no matter what you feel you have to lose nothing is more important than your own wellbeing. Some steps you can take to combat abuse you might be suffering at the workplace include:

Contact one of the many bullying helplines such as ACASSupportline or bullying.co.uk

Try and resolve the problem informally with the person, although sometimes this might not be an option.

If possible, confide in a member of HR or a higher up that you think could help, companies can be liable for your trauma if they don’t take necessary measures to prevent it.

Gather any possible evidence you can of the bullying without putting yourself in harms way and show it to the appropriate person to warrant them to take action.

Talk to a trusted co-worker, family member or friend about your situation.

Symptoms to solutions

As is any other form of abuse, emotional abuse in the workplace is a problem that urgently needs fixing. A culture that normalises harmful behaviour is one in need of a shock and a turnaround. Gov.uk provides some rough guidelines for what workplace bullying actually is and a link to the Advisory, Conciliation and arbitration Service (Acas) helpline.

Acas takes roughly 20,000 calls related to bullying and harassment at the workplace each year, but the impact of emotional abuse in the workplace isn’t exclusively psychological.

Bullying in the workplace is a sizeable contributor to a lot of workers being absent, causing an estimated £13.75 billion loss across businesses in 2007 and a 1.5% reduction in overall productivity in the UK. With the constantly increasing cases of workplace abuse since then, it’s a number that we’re probably going to see get a lot bigger.

Vicarious liability and constructive dismissal

It’s not all bad news though, in the UK there are a few laws in place to try and encourage businesses to prevent this type of behaviour. Vicarious liability is when an employer is responsible for the actions of its employees, if an employee discriminates against another and no steps have been taken to prevent such behaviour then the employer can be held responsible and face legal actions.

Alongside vicarious liability, there’s constructive dismissal, another law put in place to try and halt the wave of workplace abuse. Also known as constructive discharge or constructive termination, constructive dismissal is when an employee resigns simply because they have no other choice, usually in response to abusive workplace practices or a hostile work environment. Since the resignation was essentially forced, and the employee realistically had little choice in the matter it can be considered a termination.

Despite the laws, studies and research on the topic, we’re clearly not doing enough. Abuse in general is on the rise, not just in the workplace. While the abolishment of hostile work environments is something that’s been gaining traction recently, we have a long way to go before we can not only leave our problems at home, but not be subjected to even more at work. 

Check out our infographic below to learn more about the tell-tale signs.