There’s something dangerous happening to millions of Americans nationwide. It is happening in places where many people spend at least 40 hours a week. It is causing severe physical and mental illness. It runs off fear and manipulation. But its victims are not talking it about.
So what is it?
Look around the average American workplace and it’s not too hard to find. Twenty-seven percent of all adult Americans report experiencing work abuse and an additional 21 percent of Americans report witnessing it, meaning some 65 million Americans have been affected.
“Anything that affects 65 million Americans is an epidemic,” said Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute. “But it’s an un-discussable epidemic because employers don’t want this discussed.”
Not talking about work abuse has, in turn, normalized the violence, fear and power structure inherent to the phenomenon.
As Namie said, “Work abuse doesn’t shock Americans anymore.”
He continued, “We, as a society, treat it as domestic violence—we try to rationalize both away. ‘Oh you should have just got up and left it.’ Really? You’re just going to get up and leave your job and think you’ll find an equivalent? And you’re a single mom and you can just do that right? Or worse, ‘there must be something about her that provoked him.’”
While we try to explain away work abuse, its victims are quietly suffering anxiety, depression and even PTSD. In one extreme example, Carrie Clark, a former teacher and school administrator, developed such severe PTSD she suffered permanent brain damage that left her with a speech impediment.
“It’s shameful when you’re being targeted at work. It’s such an embarrassment. That had never happened to me before. I loved working. … I had quite the career,” Clark said of the months she was targeted by her boss.
As work abuse has become such a widespread employee health epidemic, it’s important to ask: Why is it so rampant? How can workers survive work abuse? And perhaps most importantly, is there any way for workers to put an end to it?
Why Bosses Abuse Workers
One of the most important things to understand about work abuse is that it’s not inevitable, but subsists within a culture that supports abusive interaction, says Judith Wyatt, a San Francisco therapist who, with her husband Chauncey Hare, is the coauthor of Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It.
“Bullying does not exist except in the context of a work system, a work culture that supports and demands bullying, rewards bullies and gets something out of bullying, which is an authoritarian, controlling environment,” Wyatt said.
In their book, Wyatt and Hare, who was a work abuse victim, call the majority of workplaces (95 percent) “authoritarian work organizations.”
“These are places that have, to some degree or another, a slave-to-slave-owner mentality operating,” Wyatt said. “In an authoritarian work organization, the people at the top have absolute power and they can do whatever they want to the people at the bottom regardless of the needs of the people at the bottom. We say that we live in a democracy in this country, but [we have] top-down organizations like that that people belong to everyday.”
These organizations also benefit from an unstable job market that supports their culture of fear.
“In a culture like the one we’re in now, the whole U.S. culture, jobs are scarce, and because it’s becoming normative to underpay people and have a job market where there are fewer jobs, it conditions people to feel like, ‘My god, a hundred people could apply to my job tomorrow, I have to accept whatever shit is coming down to me,’” Wyatt said.
Some companies have taken advantage of this fear by artificially creating instability in the workplace. Until 2013, Microsoft enforced a rank-and-yank system in which employees were ranked by performance every year, and the bottom 10 percent were fired.
Despite the fact that research finds abusive, unstable work environments actually decrease productivity, Wyatt says cognitive dissonance comes into play, and managers are more concerned about control than efficiency.
“There’s a culture of over-control and authoritarianism built into managerial school in this country,” Wyatt said. “So the idea is you have to have that power.”
The Workplace Bullying Institute’s Namie agreed that a lack of appropriate managing skills is one of the causes of work abuse.
“There’s going to be a certain proportion of managers who don’t know an alternative way to manage, and I blame the employer for that [and] for cutting back on training because it’s very hard to know how to manage well,” Namie said. “Then there’s another sub-group doing the bidding of someone up higher. Then there’s a portion of the managerial group that’s just sadistic. They’re narcissistic and sadistic and quite cruel.”
The latter, according to Wyatt, is the usual case. She said that like many people, bosses and managers have childhood traumas. But certain traumas can make for disaster when their victims are put in positions of power.
“The usual situation is that they are narcissistically wounded, in a way where the worker under them doesn’t understand how deep their wounding is,” Wyatt said. “And the worker doesn’t understand that they are triggering the boss—that the boss is somehow threatened by them. And if a narcissist is threatened by someone, they go into a rage and want to destroy them.”
Bully Bosses, Their Targets, and the Effects of Work Abuse
There are two kinds of abuse, according to Wyatt. One is the chronic neglect, over-control and over-work that occur in nearly every authoritarian work organization. The other is scapegoating, in which the boss has one or more targets he or she puts in a horrible position.
Bully bosses and their targets cut across all demographics. Namie said people from all income levels are victims of work abuse. But there are some trends, especially when it comes to gender. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2014 national survey, a majority of abusive bosses are male (69 percent), and a majority of their targets are female (57 percent). When bully bosses are female (31 percent of the time) the majority of their targets are also female (68 percent). When it comes to race, Hispanics (56.9 percent) are most likely to experience and witness bullying, followed by African Americans (54.1 percent), Asians (52.8 percent), and whites (44.3 percent).
Namie said bully bosses tend to fall into four categories: The rare, over-the-top manager who screams at his targets in front of others; the character assassination manager who is out to destroy his targets’ reputations; the withholding manager who makes sure her targets don’t have what they need to succeed; and the constant critic who, through a series of infractions, leads his targets to doubt their own confidence.
In terms of the latter, Namie said, “They’re trying to convince you you’re stupid, which is a lie, but with prolonged exposure, your memory loss actually makes you appear that way. So you will be objectively less competent over time. We can say it’s a self- fulfilling prophecy now that we know what’s happening in brain.”
The effects of work abuse on mental health are severe. The Workplace Bullying Institute found that 80 percent of victims had debilitating anxiety, 49 percent had clinical depression, 30 percent had PTSD, 29 percent contemplated suicide and 16 percent had a plan to commit suicide.
Carrie Clark developed enduring disabilities as a result of severe work abuse. After suffering through 10 months of bullying and punishment at the hands of her superintendent, Clark developed PTSD. “He called my home drunk, stalked me on campus, waited for me outside the ladies room… invaded my personal space, and accosted me with fists,” Clark said.
Fighting Work Abuse in Congress
After she left her job, Clark attempted to sue her school district, but was unsuccessful.
“I didn’t realize at the time that it’s perfectly legal to harass, break and destroy a human being in the workplace so long as that poor target can’t prove some form of discrimination as a member of a protected class,” Clark said.
Clark joined Namie and the Workplace Bullying Institute in fighting to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill in states nationwide.
Currently, the United States is the only Western nation without a law forbidding bullying-like conduct in the workplace. U.S. anti-discrimination laws only protect workers from abuse in 20 percent of cases. Victims of work abuse must be a member of a protected class to claim a hostile work environment, sexual harassment or racial discrimination. On top of that, Clark said the Supreme Court has made it difficult to prove discrimination, sometimes requiring that other members of the protected class come forward.
The Healthy Workplace Bill would allow workers to sue their work abusers for harming their health. Employers would be held financially accountable for the abuse, creating an incentive to prevent abusive behavior. The bill would also require employers to write an anti-bullying policy and conduct trainings.
The bill has been introduced in five states this year and 28 states since 2003. It has yet to pass in any state.
“The hardest part is directly getting in to talk to a legislator. We don’t have money,” Clark said, adding that the Chamber of Commerce is a fierce opponent of the bill. “Grassroots is pitched from a lot of the legislators when they’re running for office, but in actuality, they don’t really want grassroots people bugging them, they want people with money.”
Surviving Work Abuse
While the struggle continues for better workplace laws, workers are left to find their own ways to navigate work abuse. Namie said that over time, there is not much employees can do to escape the harmful mental health effects of workplace bullying.
“Psychological injuries have very little to do with strength,” he said. “They just have to do with the frequency and the duration of the perpetrators and their actions. You don’t say some Marine is weak because he or she developed PTSD. It’s a wound because someone launched an attack.”
Wyatt emphasized that because it’s nearly impossible to escape authoritarian work organizations, where there’s always some kind of abuse, workers should learn some safeguards. The first step is developing a deep understanding of the norms of your workplace as well as acknowledging that you ultimately adhere to these norms.
“We like to think that we just walk through the world as individuals, especially in this country, but in fact, we all adapt to the organizations that we have to belong to for our survival,” Wyatt said. “You have to adapt psychologically, mentally, emotionally to the point of view of the organization as created through the norms. Your whole perception of reality shifts.… It’s like a hypnosis that happens.… You have to be a member. Or else you’re going to be at war with yourself every day, and people can’t survive like that. They have to make it through.”
Once workers understand this, Wyatt said, they should find a way to join the self-interests of the people whose support they need. Wyatt said she tells her clients to figure out what’s most important to those above them and what they are most afraid of. Then workers can get more of their needs met by talking to their bosses in a way that meets the boss’ needs as well and in language that’s going to get through to them.
“We try to teach people to be warriors because they can’t expect justice,” Wyatt said. “The hardest thing for people to accept in breaking through their denial about the workplace is that there’s no justice. It’s not about justice. If you want this job, if you want to stay there, you have to comply with the norms. Period. If you want to leave, you can. But you have to know what you’re up against.”
That doesn’t mean workers should lose their perspective. Wyatt suggests workers talk to someone inside the workplace they trust or their family and friends outside of work. She also recommends that workers bring a token to work that reminds them of who they are.
“You have to rise to the ability of becoming a very sophisticated warrior with an analysis of the norms and an analysis of how they are affecting you and everyone around you,” Wyatt said. “We tell people to have personal symbols of your own strength and your own sense of self around you at all times.”
Building a Movement
Wyatt said at the time she and Hare wrote their book in 1997, they would tell their clients to look for work in the few workplaces they called “collaborative work organizations”—places where everyone has input and conflicts are resolved through open dialogue.
“Anybody who has had any experience in working in a collaborative organization—it’s like having your heart open,” Wyatt said. “It’s so inspiring. It’s what we all long for, but we’ve had so little experience with that in our lives, most of us, that we don’t even know what it would look like.”
Because those organizations are so few and far between, Wyatt primarily focuses on helping her clients survive the workplace. She said that if people truly want to reverse the increasingly authoritarian trend in workplaces, much more collective effort is needed.
“I hate to say it, but there’s less hope now than when we wrote the book,” Wyatt said. “It’s going to boil down to moving from authoritarianism to collaboration. The people who have the power don’t want to do that. They’re moving in the opposite direction politically in this country. … That’s why there was Occupy Wall Street. That’s why people were taking on the whole system. If you want my honest opinion about it, I think there would have to be a huge political movement about rights in the workplace. … I would love to see it in my lifetime. … That would be the way to go, to talk about it and create a movement.”