People who witness bullying in the workplace, or are victims of bullying are more likely to be prescribed psychotropic medications, such as antidepressants, tranquilizers or sleeping pills, researchers from the University of Helsinki Department of Public Health reported in BMJ Open.

Bullying in the workplace - both as a personal victim or a witness - is associated with mental health problems among employees. The authors explained that nobody can be sure whether that translates into requiring drug treatment. No study to date has tried to differentiate between witnessing bullying, being at the receiving end of it, and a link to being prescribed psychotropic drugs.

Previous studies have looked at the effect workplace bullying may have on employees. A study carried out by researchers from the University of Manitoba found that workplace bullying inflicts more harm on employees than sexual harassment.

Tea Lallukka, PhD., and team asked 6,606 Finnish municipal employees who worked for the City of Helsinki, the country's largest employer, about their encounters with bullying in the workplace, either as witnesses or victims, between 2000 and 2002.

The authors gathered and analyzed data from the National Registry on the purchases of prescribed psychoactive drugs; they were tracked for three years before the survey started and for five years after it was completed.

All the municipal employees who took part in the survey were part of the Helsinki Health Study and were aged from 40 to 60 years.

The researchers discovered that:
  • 5% of all the employees said they were currently victims of bullying
  • 18% of females and 12% of males reported having been bullied at some time, either in their current or previous place of employment
  • Approximately half of them said they had witnessed workplace bullying occasionally or more often
  • Workplace bullying was linked to being prescribed psychoactive drugs in both sexes
  • Women who had been bullied at work were 50% more likely to be prescribed a psychoactive medication
  • Men were twice as likely to be prescribed a psychoactive medication if they had been victims of workplace bullying
  • Women who had witnessed workplace bullying had a 53% higher risk of being prescribed a psychoactive drug
  • Men who had witnessed bullying in the workplace were nearly twice as likely to be prescribed psychoactive medications
These statistics were calculated after the researchers had taken into account factors which could distort the results, such as having been prescribed such medications before, being bullied during childhood, bodyweight, and socioeconomic status.

Between 10% and 15% of finish employees have been victims of workplace bullying, the authors wrote.

The researchers concluded:

"Our findings highlight the significance of workplace bullying to subsequent psychotropic medication reflecting medically confirmed mental problems. Tackling workplace bullying likely helps prevent mental problems among employees."

Ambient bullying - working in a place where bullying is witnessed is more likely to make people want to leave their jobs than being the victim of bullying, Canadian researchers revealed. They found that two factors can significantly impact on an employer's staff turnover: 1. Bullying within an organization. 2. When other employment is readily available.

What is workplace bullying?

Like childhood or school bullying, workplace bullying is the tendency of groups or individuals to be persistently aggressive or unreasonable towards a subordinate or co-worker. The bully (bullies) may use verbal, non-verbal, physical abuse, psychological abuse and humiliation.

Often workplace bullying is more difficult to identify because unlike school bullying, it occurs within established corporate rules and policies. Bullying may be overt or covert - however, it is always bad and people suffer.

Examples of workplace bullying

  • Belittling an employee's opinions
  • Deliberately impeding an employee's work
  • Deliberately providing wrong information
  • Intimidating an employee
  • Isolating or excluding somebody socially
  • Loading the employee with too much work, or doing the opposite so that they feel useless
  • Making it impossible for the employee to apply for promotion or training
  • Making offensive jokes, either vocally or by email
  • Persistently changing employment guidelines
  • Pestering, spying or stalking an employee - intruding on their privacy
  • Physical abuse
  • Punishing the employee unreasonably
  • Setting the employee up with unrealistic deadlines so that they are bound to fail
  • Shouting at the employee
  • Spreading untrue and/or malicious rumors, gossip or innuendo
  • Swearing at the employee
  • Tampering with an employee's personal belongings
  • Tampering with an employee's work equipment
  • Threatening physical abuse
  • Undermining an employee's work
  • Withholding necessary information
A Canadian study published today showed that childhood bullying is linked to mental health problems during adulthood.

Written by Christian Nordqvist