Workplace bullying surpasses sexual harassment when it comes to employee trauma


By Stephen M. Pfeiffer, PhD

Herman Cain may have denied the sexual harassment allegations that ultimately deflated his hopes for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination; but that didn’t stop the media from making the most of the story as every detail, no matter how mundane, came to light. However, despite the emotional pathos and media buzz surrounding this and other high-profile sexual harassment cases, research suggests that a much subtler form of

workplace abuse

may in fact be even more damaging to employees in the long run.

According to findings presented at the Seventh International Conference on Work Stress and Health in 2008, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the Society for Occupational Health Psychology, workplace bullying affects 37 percent of the American workforce at some point during their careers – a number constituting 54 million employees and, in turn, something of a “silent epidemic,” according to Workplace Bullying Institute director Gary Namie. As noted in an article about the conference published by

Live Science

, such bullying is defined by the seemingly minor incidents – exclusion, criticism, belittling comments and other rude behaviors – that, when combined, can have an incredibly negative effect on employees. David Yamada, a presentation chair at the conference and faculty member at Suffolk University Law School, explained that targets of severe workplace bullying may ultimately suffer from significant psychological and physical conditions, including symptoms that would “drive even the strongest of us into the ground.”

When compared with sexually harassed workers, participants in over 100 studies concerning bullied employees reported reduced well being and workplace satisfaction, as well as a higher overall likelihood of quitting their jobs. In particular, the bullying victims showed increased levels of job stress, aggression and anxiety compared to sexually harassed employees – leading some researchers to conclude that, while sexual harassment is undoubtedly harmful and at times catastrophic to employees, bullying is a severely underrated employee risk…and one that, unlike sexual harassment, is in no way safeguarded against by the parameters of federal law.

Finding relief from workplace bullying: a difficult path for beleaguered employees

While sexual harassment is currently illegal, and victims have various outlets for both emotional and legal support in the face of sexual aggression, the effects of employee bullying have yet to inspire a similar system of protection. With no set legal precedents and little recourse beyond a

workers compensation claim

, victims of such behavior must rely on the expert opinion of qualified professional experts to assess the extent of such injuries and to help shed light on whether the bullying has resulted in psychological impairment. However, with increased awareness, workplace bullying may one day follow in the footsteps of sexual harassment -- drawing major legal action and eventually prompting a clear legal definition for damaging and destructive behavior within the business environment. For more information on workers compensation

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