Victims of workplace bullying more likely to take antidepressants, sedatives

Studies have shown that workplace bullying can chip away at a victim’s mental health, leading to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Now, a large-scale study has provided more evidence of the harmful effects of workplace bullying. The study found that victims of workplace bullies are more likely to take antidepressants, sleeping pills, sedatives and other psychotropic medications.

The study, published in BMJ Open, also found that bystanders — those who simply witness workplace bullying and don't do anything about it — are also more likely to take these medicines.

Dr. Tea Lallukka and her colleagues at the University of Helsinki in Finland wanted to provide an objective measure of the effects of workplace bullying on the mental health of victims and their co-workers. The prescription rates would reflect medically confirmed mental problems. Earlier studies have mainly used self-reports of one’s mental health or have taken a one-time “snapshot” of workers’ mental health, rather than looking at their health over the long term.

Though workplace bullying can be defined differently, the authors defined it this way: “Workplace bullying is about situations at work, where the victims are in an unequal position with respect to their bully and are unable to defend themselves against the negative actions.”

The study looked at a large sample of public service employees working in Helsinki. Researchers tracked national registry data on prescriptions for psychotropic drugs — antidepressants, sedatives, tranquillizers and sleeping pills — for three years before the workplace bullying survey and for five years afterwards.

Five percent of employees said they were currently being bullied (a study from the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 35 percent of U.S. workers are bullied). Another 18 percent of women and around 12 percent of men said they had been bullied in the past, either in the same job or in a previous job. A whopping 50 percent of respondents said they had witnessed bullying in the workplace at least occasionally, while around 10 percent said they had witnessed it often.

The study found that being the victim of workplace bullying was associated with use of psychotropic drugs in both men and women. Women were about 50 percent more likely to have a prescription for these drugs if they had been bullied at work, while men who were bullied were twice as likely. These associations remained, even when the researchers took into account previous use of psychotropic drugs, childhood bullying, socioeconomic class and weight.

Incidentally, witnessing workplace bullying also had a harmful impact on co-workers, although less of an effect than being the actual victim of bullying.

“Such continuous negative acts and behavior at workplace likely reflects an adverse workplace ‘climate,’ which could be stressful,” Lallukka said. “Some may also fear they will be targets themselves."

This study adds more weight to the evidence showing the psychological and physical harm of workplace bullying. Prior studies have shown workplace bullying is associated with anxiety and depression, post- traumatic stress disorder, increased cortisol “stress” hormones, fatigue and sleep disturbances. It also leads to absenteeism.

“Supervisor training and increasing the abilities of management to better help the targets and control and prevent bullying could promote employee health and prevent adverse effects of workplace bullying,” Lallukka said.