How to tell if you're being verbally or emotionally bullied at work

Business people blaming frustrated male colleague in Office. Negative human emotions concept
How can you tell if you’re being verbally or emotionally bullied at work — and what should you do about it? Photo: Getty

Bullying at work is far more common than we think and there’s a misconception that verbal or emotional abuse is always overt. Rather, it’s often a pattern of subtle and insidious mistreatment that frequently goes unaddressed by employers.

Of a survey of employees from 131 companies in the UK earlier this year, 71% said they had experienced or witnessed bullying in the workplace. Another report, released by the software firm Culture Shift for Anti-Bullying Week, found almost one-quarter (24%) of employees in the financial sector have witnessed unacceptable behaviour in their workplace.

So how can you tell if you’re being verbally or emotionally bullied at work — and what should you do about it?

“It's important to draw a distinction between a demanding boss with a temper and one who is a bully,” says psychotherapist Maryam Meddin, founder and CEO of The Soke, a clinic providing mental health and wellbeing services with professional coaching and career development.

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“A bully can be identified through a relatively simple measure: is it a pattern of behaviour? In other words, in the absence of a pre-existing conflict or other reasonable explanation, can you predict your antagonist's negative demeanour towards you and is it consistently, outwardly unfavourable regardless of your performance, your response or the context in general?”

If the answer is yes, then chances are that you're on the receiving end of workplace manipulation or emotional abuse, Meddin says.

Signs of bullying may include being ignored, talked about, being left out of social events or being asked to do new tasks or tasks outside your typical duties without training or help, even when you ask for it. Being constantly monitored, unfairly criticised or ridiculed are signs too.

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The most obvious solution — though understandably not the simplest for many people — is to confront the bully and do it fast. If the abuse continues for some time, it can become entrenched within the team and misinterpreted as “harmless” or “acceptable” to you.

“This can, in the worst-case scenario, actually then become the norm not just for the antagonist but also for others who come to accept it as part of the team or workplace culture,” Meddin says.

“It's worth keeping in mind that exposing a bully, particularly if it's done in a relatively open or public arena, demonstrates a sort of courage that can be quite disempowering for them as the appeal - your perceived fear — has been eliminated from the equation.”

That being said, it’s not always possible to confront your abuser directly — especially if they are your boss. If this is the case, it’s important to bring their behaviour to the attention of those who have the power to change things.

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“These days, it will be a rare employer who doesn't act swiftly to intervene and resolve the matter, either through training, disciplinary action, mediation or all of the above,” Meddin says.

“If you value your role within the organisation, then you will have taken action to protect your own psychological wellbeing, potentially get some sort of help for the bully who may be struggling with their own issues, and saved the company both the headache of losing valuable talent and a legal battle further down the line.”

Additionally, research suggests mistreated employees are more likely to blame themselves and cave into their bosses’ demands than to blow the whistle.

Professors Christian Tröster and Niels Van Quaquebeke at Kühne Logistics University (KLU) in Hamburg conducted an experiment and a diary study with 475 people to find out how they responded to non-physical abuse by a superior at work.

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The results showed that if an employee perceives their overall relationship with their supervisor to be positive, emotional or verbal abuse triggers feelings of guilt. This means that they are likely to be more co-operative in meeting their manager’s demands — even if they’re unreasonable.

“Abusive supervision is a major issue for employees and companies and yet it is often difficult to detect in a work situation,” Tröster says. “We have found that guilt often leads to abused staff rewarding and perpetuating abusive behaviour. And the manager perceiving that they are being an effective leader.”

It’s important not to blame yourself for someone else’s bad behaviour because internalising the bully’s actions can chip away at your confidence and self-esteem. Speaking to trusted friends about it is essential, and seeking professional support can help you explore ways to cope with the effects of bullying while you take other action.