When It Can't Be Left at the Office: Workplace Emotional Abuse

Many of us may have stories of bad bosses or unsavory work environments in our work history, but rather than just butting heads with a supervisor, how many of these stories are actually instances of emotional abuse? In this post we will define emotional abuse in the workplace. We’ll describe what it looks and sounds like, and outline how it can affect you. 

Content warning: emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is insidious. It may start with seemingly small, innocuous actions or words you feel you can rationalize (Maybe I’m just reading into that comment too much?); sometimes it’s explosive in the form of shouting and directly insulting you (or your intelligence, culture, identitythe list goes on). It can occur infrequently or in a vicious cycle. It’s not always bad–in fact, there can be long periods where things seem to be going well between you two. But, you might feel almost as if you are waiting for the other shoe to drop and something to be said or done. You might feel anxious, on edge, and not quite sure why. You may feel socially withdrawn, insecure, sad, or moody. It might be trickier to get a good night’s sleep. You might feel trapped. You might question if it really is a big deal, or maybe gaslighting yourself into believing or not believing things are happening.

Emotional abuse is complex; it is a beast with multiple faces. There are no physical manifestations on the body in the form of a bruise or a scar. It may feel nearly impossible to articulate the experience. You may have been told (or made to believe) that you deserved what happened to you. You may feel ashamed or guilty for allowing yourself to experience it for so long because often, emotional abuse is only recognized through the gift of hindsight. 

What is Emotional Workplace Abuse?

Researchers Penttinen, Jyrkinen, and Wide define emotional workplace abuse as “patterned maltreatment of the target [of abuse], which can be work-task related (withholding information, ostracism, exclusion, belittlement of achievements) or personal (gossiping, violent outbursts, ridiculing the target [of abuse] in front of others).” 

Other examples of emotional abuse in the workplace can be direct:

  • Rude or outright inappropriate behavior, including but not limited to sexual harassment and verbal threats
  • Threatening your employment or threatening with a demotion or forced relocation
  • Name-calling
  • Direct insults
  • Public and/or private outbursts of anger

Or, they can be indirect:

  • Hostile body language
  • Aggressive eye contact
  • The silent treatment

There are many parallels between emotional abuse in the workplace and romantic relationships, both in how they play out interpersonally and how the target of abuse psychologically responds to them; often, emotional abuse carries a more lengthy and significant impact even after the relationship ceases. Emotional abuse increases the likelihood of developing depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, low self-esteem and self-worth, and post-traumatic stress responses or disorder. It increases the risk of physical symptoms, such as muscle tension and pain, and there is even a correlation with an increased risk of physical illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease.

Why We Need to Talk About Emotional Workplace Abuse

How much of our lives are spent at work? How much of our identity is intertwined with the role we occupy in the professional world? Emotional abuse in any relationship is want to impact how the target sees themselves, but the blurring of the private-public boundaries of emotional abuse in the workplace is evident. Emotional workplace abuse is often difficult to address or identify because of the dissonance between trying to determine if the issue is personal or professional. It ekes into personal relationships outside of the workplace. It can’t simply be written off as personality clashes and cannot be “left” at the office. Emotional workplace abuse not only challenges how we perceive ourselves (as workers, professionals, intellectuals, etc.) and challenges core beliefs about justice and fairness. Abuse in any form, but especially emotional abuse, sends the message that the target is worthless; the fact that they are the target of abuse implies that you are worthy or deserving of the abuse. Researchers define this effect on self-image and how people experience the environment after being abused as semiotic robbery, “depriving meaning that the target formerly gave to specific places and other people … are now perceived with fear and [lack of] safety.”

Organizations Must Do Better

Very often, emotional abuse in the workplace can go on or is unaddressed due to an organization's innate culture or environment that covertly or overtly encourages these behaviors. Simply placing the responsibility on the target of abuse to absolve these issues perpetuates a cycle of violence and harmful perceptions that the target of abuse is responsible for how they are treated, that the target has to change themselves to stop the abuse because they “must” be abused due to the fact they aren’t “working hard enough,” are incompetent, or ultimately deserve it. Organizations must be responsible for naming, preventing, and adequately responding to workplace abuse because the pervasiveness of emotional abuse in the workplace is a systemic and structural problem, not a personal one. Penttinen, Jykrinen, and Wide (2022) further discuss how organizations can provide better management of restructuring of workplace cultures to address and mitigate workplace abuse, including describing how to create ethical leadership and organizational structures.

What Should I Do If I Am Being Emotionally Abused in the Workplace?

First and foremost, remember that nothing you ever do warrants or excuses any abusive behavior from anyone. If you are experiencing emotional abuse at your workplace:

  • Set clear boundaries. Communicate what behaviors are unacceptable and will not be tolerated from anyone you work with, whether they are your coworker or your supervisor. 
  • Document your experiences. Keep track of what has been said or done to you with dates and times. This will be helpful if you decide to continue with the next option.
  • Report your experiences. If your organization has systems in place, such as leadership hierarchies or human resources, report your experiences to them.
  • Seek support. You do not have to go through these experiences alone. Therapy can be a wonderful resource in processing your experience, discussing coping skills and strategies for experiences of anxiety, depression, and stress, and working on rebuilding your self-esteem.

Further (Clinical) Reading:

Emotional Workplace Abuse: A New Research Approach by Elina Penttinen, Marjut Jyrkinen, and Elisabeth Wide