Verbal Abuse In The Workplace - Important Details And How To
Deal With It

What is verbal abuse in the workplace?

In this article on verbal abuse in the workplace I am not referencing situations where the boss was having an off day last week and raised her voice about some mistake that was made or where a colleague said something hurtful to another but the speaker was unaware of the distress they caused.

Here, verbal abuse in the workplace means a situation where one or more workers repeatedly and persistently torment, frustrate, provoke and pressure another worker. The victim is made to feel frightened, intimidated, threatened and generally uncomfortable. This treatment can go on for weeks, months or even years. A person's self confidence, integrity and identity are attacked. The effects can be crippling with damage to the victim's mental and physical health as well as their work productivity.

This is also known as workplace bullying, harassment or mobbing.


How common is verbal abuse in the workplace?

In studies, up to 27% of American workers say that they have suffered mobbing in their working lives. This is a huge number! How is this possible? How can 1 in every 4 workers have suffered this kind of abuse at work?

One reason is that many people are not aware of what this is. When the verbal abuse starts they don't recognize it for what it is and they excuse it away.

"The boss is very strict."

"That workmate is a bit peculiar but that's just the way he is."

"I don't like the way he talks to me but everyone else tolerates him so it must be me."

In this way, the victim tries to shrug things off and ends up putting up with abuse for a considerable amount of time.

But it's not just on the work-floor that it is shrugged off. Management will often not recognize that it is happening or frequently don't want to acknowledge that it is happening. Not recognizing it is one thing, although there really is no excuse for this with all the information that is currently available about it. However, not wanting to acknowledge it is actually detrimental to the company.

Management often try to play it down by blaming the workers. It’s a personality clash, people have to learn to take criticism, or there are often conflicts of opinion between people wherever you go are the justifications of management for not getting involved. And they don't want to get involved because it is often a difficult situation to remedy.

But letting the situation continue will typically affect the productivity of the people involved. If someone is stressed, distracted, and fearful, they will not be able to work very well. And, of course, productivity is directly affected by the increase in sick leave due to stress that verbal abuse in the workplace leads to.

A significant reason for the high incidence of verbal abuse in the workplace is that management are often responsible for the verbal abuse! It may be used to discipline people, to increase productivity and to push people out the door without having to fire them. I am not going to go into detail about bad management practices here.


What does verbal abuse in the workplace look/sound like?

Heinz Leymann talks about 5 categories of bullying in the workplace and while not all 5 categories are strictly verbal, I will describe all 5 here for the sake of completeness. Obviously not all of these have to be present to know that you are dealing with verbal abuse in the workplace!

Category 1: Impact on self expression and communication

  • You are not allowed to express your ideas or opinions
  • People talk over you when you are trying to talk
  • You are yelled at or loudly scolded
  • Your work or private life is constantly criticized
  • You are threatened orally or in writing
  • Contact with you is denied through looks, gestures or innuendos.

Category 2: Attacks on your social relations

  • People no longer speak to you
  • You are not allowed to speak to others, you are denied access to them
  • People are forbidden from talking to you
  • You are put to work in a place that is isolated from others
  • You are treated as if you are invisible

Category 3: Attacks on your reputation

  • People talk about you behind your back
  • Unfounded rumors are spread about you
  • You are ridiculed
  • You are treated as if mentally ill, or even forced to go for psychiatric evaluation
  • Your walk, voice, gestures, religion, private life, nationality is ridiculed
  • You are forced to do a job that affects your self esteem
  • Your efforts are judged in a demeaning way
  • Your decisions are questioned
  • You are called demeaning names
  • Sexual innuendos

Category 4: Attacks on the quality of your professional and life situation

  • No special tasks for you and you can't invent any yourself
  • You are given meaningless tasks to do
  • You are given tasks below your qualifications
  • You are given tasks above your qualifications to discredit you
  • Continuously given new tasks or too many tasks
  • You are given tasks that destroy your self esteem
  • Causing damage that results in financial loses for you
  • Damage to your property or home

Category 5: Direct attacks on your health

  • Forced to do a physically strenuous job
  • Threats of violence
  • Light violence is used to threaten you
  • Physical abuse
  • Outright sexual harassment

Many people think they would recognize psychological abuse and, of course, if there is constant shouting and name calling, it's easy to spot. But when there are such things as someone ignoring you in the hallway, the boss calling you to the office and leaving you to sit outside while they (deliberately) take calls for half an hour and not being asked your opinion in meetings, then it can be more difficult for a victim to recognize what is going on. If the victim complains to a friend that so and so did not say good morning it's easy for the friend to excuse it away thinking that sometimes these things happen. Likewise maybe the boss had to take an important phone call, or there was no time in the meeting to get everyone's opinion. This lack of understanding on the part of friends and family of the victim can quickly increase the sense of isolation that the victim experiences.


The sequence of events of verbal abuse in the workplace

Such abuse often starts insidiously often after a particular incident. The abuse gathers momentum and the attacks get more aggressive. Other persons may be recruited by the aggressor to also abuse the victim.

When management gets involved, they may actually put a stop to things but all too frequently they mis-categorize what is happening and things escalate. The isolation of the victim increases because they feel totally unsupported by anyone.

The victim is labeled as obstructive and a trouble maker or even mentally ill. This leads to expulsion of some sort, either firing, extended periods of stress leave or the victim can no longer tolerate what is going on and leaves.

Even after the expulsion, the victim continues to have problems.


The effects of verbal abuse in the workplace

Depending on circumstances, some people may take months before exhibiting symptoms, others will start to show symptoms very quickly.

Loss of coping resources, desperation, helplessness, rage at the lack of support, anxiety and despair are common in those subjected to verbal abuse in the workplace. Psychosomatic problems including headaches, intestinal upsets, sleep disturbances, weight problems, muscle aches and pains, palpitations and so on.

People may have panic attacks, over react to stimuli, be irritable, develop phobias and have difficulty with concentration, memory and decision making. Some even become abusive and violent with friends and family members.

Many victims are diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder with the symptoms of intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, hyper alertness, emotional numbing, insomnia, nightmares and attacks of anxiety or panic.

The symptoms, as we can see, are not limited to the workplace and pervade every aspect of a person's life. The victim may feel very isolated, may lose their job and many are even driven to suicide.

There are three situations that arise in such circumstances. The first is that the abuse stops because the victim escapes from the workplace or the situation is resolved by management and the victim can continue in their current post or they are transferred elsewhere.

The second is where the person cannot escape easily and ends up suffering abuse to the point that even when they do leave, they struggle to re-enter the work force.

And the third situation is where the person who is so badly affected that they are unable to re-enter the workforce again. The mental and physical problems are so severe that recovery seems unlikely, unless the victim works with a professional to receive specialized help.


Important pointers about verbal abuse in the workplace

Here are some ideas about verbal abuse in the workplace to keep in mind if you find yourself in such a situation.

We cannot say that there is a particular personality or character type that is particularly prone to being bullied or abused in the work-place. Doing such a study would obviously be very costly and time consuming. The best thing to assume is that anyone is vulnerable to this form of abuse.

It's often people who are very good at their job, who are dedicated and hard working who become the victims of verbal abuse in the workplace. Others feel threatened or feel that they are being shown up in a bad light by these genuinely nice people and set about to get rid of them.

It's important to stop the abuse as soon as possible. Sitting back and waiting to see if the abuser(s) get fed up is a very poor strategy. If they are determined to get rid of you, they will keep going until that happens. It's much better to get out while the effects are minimal than to wait until you are forced out when the symptoms will be much more severe and it will be even more difficult for you to get other employment.

If there is no clear anti-bullying policy in your workplace, or even worse, if there is one and the management is not following it, then you are in a bad situation. It's better to cut your losses and run. Any time spent in the job trying to get management on your side is time when you are continuing to be abused. Run, don't walk, to the exit.

If you are going down a legal route, get professional help. Not just legal help, but help from a professional in this area. There are many reasons for this, the most significant being that you personally recover from the situation as opposed to suffering for years.

In court, being able to explain clearly and concisely the techniques used against you so that anyone can understand is invaluable. It also means that you can describe the situation without appearing to be an emotional mess so you don't come across as the one who was mad, bad or sad (crazy, evil or depressed). Being able to tell your story in a coherent, logical manner where it's obvious to the listeners that you understand exactly what was done to you is a very powerful position in a courtroom.

A legal representative who understands psychological abuse is worth their weight in gold. It means you don't have to educate your lawyer about verbal abuse and mobbing.

Lots of abusers are actually psychopaths (A psychopath does not mean a serial killer or a serial rapist.) These people control others for the sake of controlling and don't necessarily abuse others to feel good about themselves or because they feel insecure. Their motivation is control and domination. If you are dealing with a psychopath then you really need to understand what you are dealing with because these people take things to a whole different level.


What won't work

If you are suffering verbal abuse in the workplace you will find lots of advice that will not work.

Let it go, get over it, get over yourself, grow up and learn to take criticism are all ideas that do much more harm than good. The first thing is that it puts the responsibility on you for the problem. This is a disaster and quite detrimental for victims. The second thing is that it's not possible to ignore verbal abuse if you are a normal, feeling human being. It's designed to be very personal and very hurtful. Trying to ignore it is what leads to people suffering for years in a job.

'Speak up and tell the abuser that what they are doing is hurtful' is another thing you will hear. This may work in the very early stages of a situation. You have to remember, though, that the abuser already knows it's hurtful. That's why they are doing it!! What typically happens when a victim tells the abuser that something is hurtful is that the abuser does it more because they have direct evidence that what they are doing is working!

Set boundaries and limits. This is all very well to say, but when a person is suffering verbal abuse in the workplace, their coping resources are often quite depleted and they are literally unable to physically or mentally re-establish their boundaries. And besides, the abuser or abusers are much better at tearing down boundaries than the victim is at maintaining them.

There is another insidious effect on the victim of hearing this kind of advice. The victim starts to try and do it because they believe it works and it's what they should be doing. When it doesn't work they believe that it's they who can't get it to work because apparently it works for others. They then feel even worse about themselves and this becomes more evidence that the abuser might be right. Needless to say, this does the victims no good at all.

Resorting to violence is not a good choice. The anger can be so strong that violence is often contemplated by the victims but it only causes more problems, not least of which the abuser points the finger at you and claims that he or she was right all along, that you really are the problem.


What you can do

As soon as you think there is something wrong, this is the time to take action. You are often better off going to the boss or to Human Resources if there is such a department where you work. Even if you just express your concerns at first without making a formal complaint, it's better to get these things out in the open and let people know your side of the story. It's better for you to get there first so the abuser is on the defensive rather than the abuser to complain and for you to then have to prove your innocence.

Whatever else you do, the most important thing is for you to learn about psychological and verbal abuse. This is fundamental. Anything else you do may give relief in various ways but without understanding verbal abuse in the workplace you will not be able to recover fully.

Keep meticulous notes. Dates, times, persons, activities. This will help you to keep things in perspective and such notes are invaluable if things go down the legal route.

Prepare an escape. Even if you have to leave before you have another job, no matter how daunting it may seem, it's better to get out when you are relatively well. Trying to find employment if you are suffering from PTSD is not a good position to be in!

Keep reminding yourself that there are options. You may be suffering verbal abuse in the workplace but that does not mean that you don't have options.

Make sure you maintain good relationships with friends and family in order to minimize any sense of being isolated. Do things that you enjoy and treat yourself a lot. Some people have found that developing a new hobby, exercise, or using their skills in other contexts, for example, a part time job or voluntary work has helped them.

Did I mention getting professional help?!? If you are at the stage where you are having many symptoms and the verbal abuse in the workplace is affecting your social and personal life as well (why else would you be reading this article?), working with an expert in the field will make a significant difference for you. It will save you time, money, effort and your physical and mental health.


More information

If you are suffering verbal abuse in the workplace you will find more information that is of value to you in these articles about emotional abuse signs, signs of verbal abuse, how to recognize a psychopath at work, narcissism in the workplace and dealing with controlling people.

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