Bullying and the lasting impact it has on mental health

Bullying can be a major cause of mental ill health linked to the workplace and has a long-lasting impact, but it is often not just about particular individuals but structural issues.

Mental Health


Mental health has featured heavily in the news of late, particularly getting people back into work who have dropped out due to a mental health problem. The idea is that long periods out of work can worsen mental health. But in some cases work is the cause of mental health problems and the danger is that a blanket attempt, say, to reduce sick notes for mental illness could make mental health associated with work worse. I’ve spoken to many people who have suffered workplace stress, often due to bullying, who needed some time out to get themselves together or find a new job.

Bullying at work leaves a long-term imprint – it can affect people physically as well as mentally. Confidence falls and is hard to rebuild. And all too frequently the bully, often a manager, gets off scot free, moves job to bully again or gets promoted. I was speaking to someone the other day who has a brilliant work record who had to leave her job due to bullying by her manager. The manager had behaved similarly to several other women – and women are often the victims of workplace bullying – and moved jobs with an non-disclosure agreement [NDA] protecting him so those at his new workplace knew nothing about the previous bullying allegations.

I’ve seen bullying in action close up. One manager had a reputation for it and I can only recall women being the victims. Female colleagues with very good work records. He was backed up by HR and the senior management who wanted to get rid of people. He’s done well for himself. I once saw his close friend, who was also promoted – at an event on inspiring girls, no less. It was several years later, but I still couldn’t bring myself to talk to her. We talk a lot about allies these days, but bullies have allies too.

Of course, bullies only thrive in structures that enable them and so anti-bullying policies alone are not enough. It’s the same with sexism generally. Having the policies, doing training and the like, doesn’t work on its own if the way the company operates runs counter to that, if bullies don’t get punished, if victims are not listened to, if bullies get promoted, if senior managers don’t support those lower down the ranks and ensure the pressures on them are not insurmountable…

At one company I worked for they had an exit interview – not that they acted on it. It was perfunctory. But exit interviews can show up a pattern of behaviour if employers haven’t created a culture where people feel they can report bullying before they make the decision to leave. But again, it’s no use having an exit interview without actually using the information in it. It can be expensive to get rid of line managers who are bullies, but the impact they have is also expensive if good people leave, go on stress leave or are hampered from performing to the best of their ability because they are afraid. Ahead of International Stand up to Bullying Day on 24th February, it would be good to see workplace bullying centre stage in any employer efforts to address mental health at work.

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