Emotional Abuse in the Workplace

Emotional abuse in the workplace

Emotional abuse in the workplace is a phenomenon that affects many workers around the world.  For those suffering from workplace abuse, life can become incredibly difficult or impossible, turning dream jobs into nightmares. Psychological abuse can be vicious because it can be difficult to detect if it is not blatant, much like adults may not understand that a child is being bullied at school.  It often requires context and understanding of the balance of power within a team or workplace.  Many employees may not recognize it or may not know how to report it.  Others refuse to report it out of shame or anger.  Others still will report, but human resource departments may not have the understanding to address the situation properly.  However, this growing issue in the workplace is important to understand and address because its presence hurts both individuals and the company, something that no workplace would hope to happen. Globally, 17.9 % of employees said they had experienced psychological violence and harassment in their workplace.  These numbers should be taken seriously. For instance, domestic violence statistics show that about 3 in 10 women (29%) and 1 in 10 men (10%) in the US have experienced different types of domestic violence.

This article will examine emotional abuse in the workplace and attempt to create a primer on how to spot and address it before it becomes a larger issue for individual employees and the workplace.  First, it will define workplace bullying from psychology and other resources and discuss the links made to emotional abuse in the workplace.  Next, it will provide several types of emotional abuse and several signs of workplace violence.  After this, it will examine some of the common forms of emotional abuse in the workplace, before moving on to the causes and effects of emotional abuse.  It will end with a discussion on resolving and preventing psychological harassment and some resources for readers who are suffering from emotional abuse in the workplace.  

Defining Emotional Abuse: 

Emotional abuse, like other forms of abuse, is an attempt to control another person through criticism, embarrassment, shame, blame, or other manipulative factors.  Unlike physical abuse, which physically harms the body, psychological abuse is often less visible and results in a deterioration of the victim’s self-esteem and well-being.  Importantly, an isolated incident of humiliation and insult is usually not considered emotional abuse unless it is catastrophic, but a pattern of manipulative behaviors will be considered psychological harassment.  The goal of the abuser is to control the victim through fear.  Victims will often internalize these insults as truth and will often begin to believe they are the ones failing.  It will often cause a variety of mental health issues for the victim and will cause a relational breakdown. 

The idea of emotional abuse in the workplace was first created by Dr. Heinz Leymann in Sweden.  He created the concept of “mobbing,” which is the collective bullying of a person at work.  He noted that the behavior is often malicious because it can continue undetected, as it can be hidden in feedback to employees and unnoticed by superiors.  Dr. Leymann described mobbing as a “phycological terror” that is “hostile and unethical communication directed systemically by one or a few individuals mainly toward one individual.”  He also identified at least 45 behaviors that could be considered abuse or mobbing.  This terror inflicted on the individual will affect their productivity, their mental health, and their physical health.  It is most often found among teams of people where one member is the odd one out.  

The Types of Emotional Abuse: 

Several types of emotional abuse can be identified.  Understanding these types helps to recognize the subtle ways in which one person is manipulating another, even when it can seem harmless at the moment.  Emotional abuse will usually fall within one of the following actions and can be described through one of these lenses.  

  • Ignoring: Ignoring a person repeatedly, especially if it is done intentionally, is another example of how someone may be emotionally abusive toward another person.  This can include overlooking ideas or even stealing and using ideas without providing any credit. It can also include seemingly small issues like putting the target in the far corner of the office where fewer people will be able to interact with them.  This type of psychological abuse is harmful because it 
  • Rejection: While there are instances where a person or idea needs to be rejected, a pattern of consistent rejection, whether conscious or unconscious, is a form of psychological abuse.  This can come in the form of consistently rejecting work that is done or rejecting the person for meetings or ideas.  This form of psychological harassment is harmful because it makes the target feel unwanted and unworthy.  
  • Isolation: This type of psychological harassment has some overlap with ignoring, but it enforces the isolation of the target from others.  This can include similar situations, like placing the target in a removed office but then taking it a step further to stop others from interacting with the target at work.  This can be malicious because it actively separates the target from human connections and causes the target to work alone.  
  • Corruption:  When discussing emotional abuse, corruption is a tactic where the abuser gives the target tasks or information that is wrong or misleading and the target is forced to use it in a way that ruins their work or the team’s work.  This is harmful because it subjects the target of criticism that is unfounded or may subject the target to disciplinary measures.  In severe cases, this can end up leading to criminal activity.  
  • Exploitation: Exploitation is the use of another’s skills or work for one’s gain.  In the workplace, this may mean making the target do the work on a project and the abuser gets all credit or even forcing someone into extra work without paying them adequately.  This harms the target by removing credit from their work and by making their work less exciting or fulfilling.  Additionally, it can create a servant mentality that undercuts the target’s worth. 
  • Terror: This is the type of emotional abuse that singles out an employee for criticism or punishment for normal emotions or things.  This can include behavior like yelling, belittling, teasing, threats, and unreasonable demands that include punishment when not fulfilled.  This is harmful because it causes the employee to live in constant fear. 

Many actions that are considered emotional abuse will fit into these categories, and in a way, they categorize the motivation or outcome of the actions.  Emotional abuse seeks to control and degrade the target until they have little to no self-worth.  

Signs of Emotional Abuse: 

In addition to understanding the categories of psychological abuse, it is more important to understand the signs of emotional abuse. Recognizing abusive behavior will help victims understand what is happening to them and will help human resources and other supervisors identify and address the situation.  These signs include: 

  • Control: If a person relies on another person to make decisions or feels that they do not have the independence to adequately work on the team without another’s approval, it may be a sign of psychological harassment.  This can include one person or a group of other employees controlling who the person spends time with or how or where they work.  
  • Threats: If a person is reporting threats, there may be emotional abuse.  This can be threats to safety, property, or loved ones, or threats about the person’s position or role.  When this is repetitive and is used to control, this is a sign of emotional abuse.  
  • Hyper-Critical: While every employee will likely face criticism at some point, an employee-facing constant criticism about their work or other aspects of their life is a sign that someone is facing abuse.  This may be the way they deliver necessary criticism, or it may be that they criticize things that are not worthy of criticism.  
  • Invasive: When one employee is ignoring another’s boundaries or invading their privacy, this can be a sign of emotional abuse.  This often means that the target has little to no privacy at work, and any attempts to create healthy boundaries are ignored.  
  • Dismissive: This is especially a sign when the abuse is taking place among members of a team and one of the superiors is ignoring or dismissing reports.  When feelings, boundaries, and concerns are dismissed, this is a form of emotional abuse and makes the abuse recognizable.  
  • Unrealistic: Another sign of emotional abuse is unrealistic expectations of a person.  This can include unwarranted reactions to the work or suggestions that the person produces or expectations that are uncalled for such as extra-long hours or unreasonable dress code rules.  

Other signs may be present when psychological abuse is taking place, but these combined with an understanding of the behaviors that may be considered emotional abuse will help victims and help identify and address emotional abuse.  

Common Forms of Emotional Abuse in the Workplace: 

After discussing the signs and the types of emotional abuse in the workplace, examples of behaviors that may be considered psychological harassment need to be discussed as well.  These examples are particularly prevalent in instances where the abuse is happening through mobbing, or a group of people attacking a target together in the workplace to make them feel unwelcome.  Some examples of emotionally abusive behavior include: 

  • Stonewalling: Stonewalling is an intentional dismissal of the target’s ideas or suggestions.  This can include completely ignoring the person’s suggestions, or it may include the group listening to the idea only to dismiss, ignore, or criticize it.  
  • Verbal Aggression: Verbal aggression is often considered psychological abuse and includes other actions directed toward the target, such as sarcastic remarks, harsh tones, or other microaggressions that take place repeatedly.  
  • Exclusion: One of the largest tactics that groups or individuals will use to abuse others in the workplace is exclusion.  Exclusion is the intentional separation between the target and other members of the workplace.  This can include purposefully and openly leaving the target out of social events and refusing to use their skills as a part of the team.  
  • Gossip: Groups will often try and spread rumors about the target to get other people to participate in the abuse without intentionally participating.  This will often result in further exclusion in the workplace and could even lead to the target being shunned outside of the office and with other potential employers.  
  • Arguments: Constant arguments are another form of psychological harassment.  This can constantly challenge the views and ideas of the other person and is arguing only to argue. The most common sign that something like this is happening is that the abuser will not stop arguing when they have been proven wrong or will challenge unnecessary things.  
  • Physical Aggression: While less common, there are instances where psychological harassment transitions into physical aggression.  This is usually in cases where there has been little to no repercussions for the abuse, which emboldens the abuser.    
  • Gaslighting: Gaslighting is a technique that uses emotional and mental manipulation to cause the target to question their own reality.  This is a form of psychological abuse because it creates a narrative for a person that affects their psyche through control and manipulation.  
  • Silent Treatment: This is another tactic that contributes to exclusion.  This can be a group idea or maybe an individual that refuses to talk to or acknowledge the other person. This can be in reaction to something that the target did, or it may just be for no reason at all.  

This is an unexhaustive list, but it provides some examples of specific behaviors that would be considered psychological harassment and how they would present in the workplace.  

Causes of Emotional Abuse: 

Emotional abuse often begins with some sort of conflict between the parties; however, it is important to acknowledge that the target is not the cause of the abuse, but a victim.  The conflict between parties, when adequately addressed, does not and should not excuse abuse.  In addition to conflict, other common causes of emotional abuse in the workplace include: 

  • Lack of Structural Recourse: This is the biggest factor in how aggressive workplace bullying is.  If there is no system of recourse or if management is involved with the abuse in some way, the person can be targeted viciously for long periods without help.  If a group knows that there will be consequences, they will be less likely to continue to harm the victim.
  • Absence of Knowledge about Abuse:  Psychological harassment is not often talked about in human resource training on workplace harassment as something separate from sexual or physical harassment, so it is often not known. When management or human resources do not know about psychological abuse, they will be less likely to address it.  
  • Maintenance of Status Quo: If one of the employees consistently excels and causes the other coworkers to fear that they will be held to the same standard, it can cause them to attempt to undermine the target’s work.  They do so to keep the target’s work at a lower status and keep the median at the same place, rather than raise it.  
  • Underperforming or Difficult Employees: Conversely, if one employee is consistently underperforming or is difficult to work with but continues to be around, the other employees may resent them and edge them out through psychological harassment. 
  • Whistleblowers: If one employee acts as a whistleblower about others to management or outside sources, there may be retaliation in the form of workplace violence.  
  • Professional Jealousy: If one employee is consistently doing well and moving up in the company, it is not uncommon for others to harass them out of jealousy, usually on the part of the leader.  
  • Personal Reasons: This is often the reason that the other employees join in with the ring leader.  If the other employees see similar characteristics to the ring leader, they may join with them.  On the opposite end, if they see similar characteristics to the target, they may join to avoid being bullied themselves.  

Many other circumstances may lead to emotional abuse in the workplace, but these are common ones to identify and watch for to keep workplace bullying out of the workplace.  

Effects of Emotional Abuse: 

Emotional abuse has effects on the target, on their coworkers, and on the business in which the abuse is happening.  For businesses, workplace bullying will often result in severe economic harm.  This cost can come from settlements and rehabilitation, but it may also be seen in decreased productivity in the workplace. If the abuse is tolerated by the company, they may lose some of their best employees and eventually lose their reputation. For coworkers who do not participate in the abuse, they may fear being targeted themselves or feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by the company’s response to the abuse.  This can lead to employees leaving the company to avoid abuse.   

No matter how much the abuse affects the company, this pales in comparison to the effects on the individuals who are targeted by the abuse. This abuse can lead to long-term psychological effects that the victim has to deal with for the rest of their life, such as depression and anxiety.  This can also lead to physical symptoms, such as headaches and chronic pain.  This can result in a decrease in performance, which can cause the employee to be released from employment.  Searching for a new job may be difficult because the decrease in performance will likely affect their job prospects in the future. Their reputation may be permanently damaged as well.  

Resolving and Preventing Emotional Abuse: 

For those in positions within a company in which they have some influence over the culture, it can be incredibly beneficial for both the employees and the business to put precautions in place to avoid emotional abuse in the workplace.  

  • Add Emotional Abuse to the Harassment Policies: Because many office policies do not include bullying and workplace violence, there are very few repercussions for offenders.  By adding this abuse to a harassment policy, the company can act when someone violates the policy. It also helps identify what psychological abuse is and provides the target a place to turn when they are facing this abuse.  
  • Change the Culture: Creating a culture that values hard work and celebrates the achievements of each employee allows all employees to feel that their contributions are valued and appreciated.  This will create less resentment between employees.  This also includes encouraging leadership to be mindful of abuse, to refuse to engage in it, and to stop it before it begins to have a lasting effect on the target and the team.  
  • Conduct Regular Performance Reviews:  Workplace bullying occurs more frequently when employee performance and behavior are not reviewed regularly.  By reviewing performance and behavior, it is easier to notice and stop abuse before it becomes a larger issue.  
  • Create Policies for Feedback: Because workplace bullying finds its home in criticism, it can be helpful for a company to define and create a system for feedback with employees to avoid this feedback becoming abusive.  This can include mandatory training for managers and supervisors to ensure that criticism is not abusive. Establish legitimate complaint process. 

Changing policies to create a healthy and supportive workplace will help all employees feel content in their role and secure in their position.  It will also make it easier for the company to act in the instance of abuse.  

For Victims: 

If you believe that you are a victim of psychological abuse, know that you are not alone and that what you are experiencing has a name and is abuse.  Your abusers likely targeted you for personal reasons, and it is important to understand that there is likely nothing you could have done to avoid the abuse.  You also have options to potentially stop and prevent future abuse; however, this is not your job and you should not have to stop the abuse that is happening to you.  But if you have the capacity, know that there are options.  You should ou report abusive behavior to the proper workplace authorities. Federal labor laws protect victims who are targeted based on protected characteristics, such as race, gender, or nationality.  State and local laws may protect against workplace bullying, and some employees may receive unemployment benefits if they quit based on bullying that was not being addressed.  

Additionally, it is important to determine a short-term and a long-term plan to help you remove yourself from the abuse.  This may involve finding recourse that is not your direct superiors or moving to another job in the company with different coworkers.  It is often better to leave a company sooner rather than later before adverse health effects set in and make it difficult to find other work.  By planning and taking control of the parts of the situation that can be controlled, you may find the agency that felt unavailable, which will help you to move forward confidently as a survivor.  

Some other important steps to take to protect your mental health when dealing with abuse are: 

  • Establish Boundaries: This is particularly necessary when the abuse is happening in a way that is interfering with your work.  If you have not communicated your boundaries to the person abusing you, it could be helpful to do so, as they may not recognize their boundary-crossing.  This also means setting boundaries for yourself and how you work.  If you need to ask for time off or time to work from home or even to find a new job, take that time.  
  • No Self Blame: The abusive behavior is the result of the state of the person who is abusing you, not of your behavior or personality.  It is not your fault, and you should not bear the blame for someone else choosing to treat you poorly.  
  • Avoid Engaging: This can be difficult, especially in situations where the abuser has some level of control over the target.  However, refusing to engage in abusive behavior, such as calling out comments, remaining calm in the face of anger, and choosing to avoid interactions that could escalate may help curb the abuse.  If the abuse is happening in an exploitative way, this may mean doing what is reasonable based on your job description.  This may allow proof for you to give to higher management as unreasonable and abusive behavior.  
  • Find an Exit: If the abuse is so great that you are performing poorly or suffering to perform adequately, it may be time to find a new job, especially in a company where there seems to be little recourse for the individuals who are abusing you.  If you can find another job before it gets to this point, that may be the best decision.  

Again, it is important to remember that solving and stopping this abuse is not your responsibility. However, these steps may make your life more enjoyable as you move forward.  


Psychological harassment in the workplace is not something that should be taken lightly, as it can cause severe harm for individuals suffering from the abuse, as well as the workplace itself.  Identifying and acknowledging this abuse is important to help develop a plan of action to stop the abuse and prevent it from moving forward.  The best thing a workplace can do is be prepared and address the abuse swiftly, as it will send a message to anyone who may be considering using similar tactics.  Emotional abuse is a serious issue, and understanding and acknowledging it is an important step to making a workplace safe.  

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