Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Toxic workplace

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Toxic workplace:
Surviving the emotional consequences

Overview[edit | edit source]

This chapter will inform you of identifying the behaviour of the toxic workplace and the workplace bully and the subsequent emotional and biological consequences of working in a toxic workplace. The chapter will give you practical examples of behaviour and explain the injuries that can occur from working in this type of environment.

Globalisation, longer working hours, competition, technology, mobility and an attitude of a moi first work ethos is responsible for aggressive and emotional displays in the workplace that sometimes erupts into physical violence. The increasing demands for improved performance acts as a fertile climate for workplace bullying.

This link is to give you additional information about working in a toxic environment and how it can impact on your health and well-being. Furthermore, it gives you practical advice that you can use at a later date.

The toxic workplace environment[edit | edit source]

What is a toxic environment?[edit | edit source]

Heinz Leymann (1990) identified workplace bullying as 'endemic in workforces’ throughout the world as he investigated the psychosocial work environment and stated that victims of ‘mobbing’ had a legitimate grievance. However, Zapf (1999) distinguished mobbing as a ‘group phenomenon’ where ‘the group’ act collectively. The phenomena of bullying, mobbing and violence is, in fact, overlapping (Vickers 2011). Bullying in any form is an occupational safety hazard in both developed and developing countries (Lovel & Lee 2011). Liefooghe and Davey (2010) maintained that workplace bullying is now so institutionalised in many organisations, it has become legitimised. Hague et al. (2010) found that bullying is more severe than other job stressors.

If you are constantly being bullied in your workplace, your workplace is toxic and unsafe. Bullying is ‘repeated, unreasonable and inappropriate acts directed at a victim which causes psychological and physical distress and harm’ (Goodman-Delahunty, 2007).

Bowling et al. (2010) found that the victim’s own personality was related to the interpersonal conflict. However, that makes no difference in law. Bullying is like terrorism. It is destructive, intimidating, injurious and sometimes results in death. Bullies are usually in a position to get a mob of sycophants in the workplace to cheer them on. One in five workers in the USA have experienced intimidating, threatening and demeaning behaviour considered to be workplace bullying (Campaign 2004). According to Einarsen (1996), workplace bullying is either dispute-related or predatory where a victim may be an opportunistic target. Bullying is not a result of a difference of opinion. It is intended to ostracise, marginalise, demean, intimidate, threaten and injure the employee. Bullying tactics are:

  • Non-verbal
  • Verbal
  • Workplace manipulation

What actually is the workplace[edit | edit source]

WHERE IS THE WORKPLACE? Where there is bullying, there is a power imbalance and intimidation in the workplace which extends to outside work functions, trips, and even the obligatory bonding breakfasts. Agervold (2009) maintains that ‘experienced bullying is accompanied with negative appraisals of the psychosocial work environment and in this way supports the interpretation that the work environment contributes to bullying’.

Stress and the workplace[edit | edit source]

HOW CAN THE WORKPLACE INJURE A PERSON? According to Zegans (1982), stress impacts upon health by the responses of the physiological functioning. Bullying leads to burnout and the studies of Lubinski (1994) and Maslach (1982) found that the work environment can produce an insidious and vicious physical and psychological toll on an individual. In a World Health Organization (WHO) study, Von Korff and Simon (1996) analysed the relationship between pain and depression. They found that when chronic pain and depression co-occur, physical and psychological illnesses become enmeshed.

Bully profile[edit | edit source]

HOW DOES A BULLY BULLY? Power plays a significant role in bullying and victim behaviours (Hixon 2009). Howard et al. (1986) identified six influence tactics used in interpersonal relationships: manipulation, supplication, bullying, autocracy, disengagement, and bargaining.

These tactics can used by bullies to cement their power over you. The studies of Einarsen and Stogstad (1996) found that bullies feel entitled to judge others. Goodwin et al. (2000) found that the powerful can feel that their beliefs are valid.


  • want power because it’s exhilarating to harm or destroy the victim,
  • derive pleasure when exerting power systematically and repetitively, and
  • display psycho-social deviant behaviour and behavioural patterns.

The bullying then becomes ‘powerful institutional organizing principles’ (Liefooghe & Davey 2010). Bully tactics include:

  1. Sabotage of work or equipment
  2. Inaccurate memos & information
  3. Interference with correspondence
  4. Giving menial tasks
  5. Over monitoring
  6. Constant changes
  7. Setting a person up to fail
  8. Blocking application for leave or training
  9. Damaging appraisals
  10. Destroying peer relationships

The studies of Hague et al. (2009) found that among situational factors, role conflict and interpersonal conflicts create a significant climate for workplace bullying and that bullying will thrive in stressful working environments.

Symbolic violence[edit | edit source]

WHAT IS SYMBOLIC VIOLENCE? ‘Symbolic violence’, first termed by French sociologist Pierre Bordieu, (cited in Clegg 1989) developed the context of psycho-social workplace behaviour whereby dominant groups legitimised their domination. Clegg (1989) continued Bordieu’s research in power dynamics and found that power, politics, and influence are considered legitimate management strategies to defeat conflict and overcome resistance. This, of course, legitimises bullying activities (Pfeffer, 1992).

Events that traumatised[edit | edit source]


  • A man was poisoned by a workmate with an ethanol-based liquid poured into his coffee.
  • Workmates poured urine into a colleague’s car vents.
  • At a Halloween party, a mock up tombstone had a worker’s name on it. This sent the worker into severe depression.
  • A worker found a photo of her boss in her pigeon-hole at work. The boss was sitting naked on a toilet posing. The caption said, ‘This is what I am going to do to you’.

These emotional events would have caused biological reactions. In each of these situations, the bodies of these persons facing these threatening situations would prepare to cope by activating (1) heart, lungs and muscles (autonomic nervous system); (2) glands and hormones (endocrine system); (3) limbic brain structures such as the amygdala (neural brain circuits); (4) neural activity and the pace of neural firing; (5) discrete patterns of the facial musculature (Reeve, 2009).

In Carlile v Council of the Shire of Kilkivan and Briekreutz (1995) Qld District Court, Mr Carlile was:

  • harassed for eating an orange,
  • called ‘stupid’,
  • told he was of no use,
  • ordered to perform menial tasks,
  • ordered to undertake dangerous tasks, and
  • ordered to undertake unnecessary tasks.

Mr Carlile was awarded a nice large compensation payout by the court because the workplace bullying injured his psychological and subsequent physical health. Mr Carlile would have felt fear anger and anxiety which would have been generated by the right prefrontal cortex. The neural firing would have caused a pattern of electrocortical activity in his brain and a high neural firing would have activated his distress or anger (Reeve, 2009).

Depression[edit | edit source]

IS DEPRESSION JUST A MOOD? Hague et al. (2010) found that bullying was a substantial contributor to depression and anxiety.

Depression will cause[factual?]:

  • A reduced grey matter density in the left temporal cortex which will include the hippocampus in chronic depression
  • An increased perfusion in cingulate and paralimbic areas
  • A reduction in altanserin uptake in the right hemisphere which also includes posterolateral, orbitofrontal and the anterior insular cortex.

Depression is a very real physical injury. According to Gupta et al. (2002), the physical signs of depression have their importance in differential diagnosis and as a qualitative care issue. Stouthard’s (2000) study of disability weights ranked severe depression on par with moderately severe brain injuries. Wilkie (1996) stated that endogenous depression is caused by an imbalance within the body’s chemistry and if not treated, there is a significant risk of suicide. O’Keene (2000) identified different stressors which activate selective stress responses in the body but the most commonly activated of these systems is the hypothatamic-pituitary-adrelan (HPA) axis. The HPA axis following psychological stress involves the stress neurotransmitters 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) or noradrenaline (NA). Stimulation of either of these neurotransmitter systems results in CHR (corticotropin-releasing hormone) release from the hypothalamus and subsequent release of adarenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) from the anterior pituitary gland[factual?]. In other words, the stress and depression from workplace bullying has caused you a severe biological injury.

Anxiety[edit | edit source]

Anxiety is serious as hypoglycaemia or low blood glucose interferes with the function of the brain.

Physical symptoms from anxiety[edit | edit source]


  • Blood flow changes
  • Activity of the internal organs changes
  • Spasms in the lower oesophagus
  • Tension/chronic headaches
  • Stiff /sore muscles in the neck and upper shoulders
  • Increased tension of both agonist and antagonist muscle groups causing tremors and the shakes
  • Backaches and pains in the chest
  • Increased rapid heart rate caused by activation of the sympathetic nervous system fibres.

If you are suffering from anxiety, your body has been put on alert as the flow of blood is diverted from non-essential functions so that the nerve network is stimulated. The network, the parasympathetic nervous system, activates when the body is resting. However, with frequent anxiety reactions, the parasympathetic nervous system must oppose the effects of adrenaline and noradrenaline that are released during anxiety. As a result of this, there can be irregular contractions in the hollow organs in the body and the person suffering from anxiety would likely have irritable bowel symptoms or frequency of urination.

How anxiety due to workplace bullying affects you[edit | edit source]

HOW WILL YOUR BODY REACT IF YOU ARE BULIED IN THE WORKPLACE? Bullying is offensive, abusive or threatening behaviour directed at a person or group.

Interviews with many bullied victims revealed the following reactions (Feeley 2005).

  • Pretending to be ill
  • Feeling nauseous in the morning
  • Fantasizing how to kill the bully
  • Insomnia
  • Feeling repeatedly punched in the stomach
  • Feeling isolated and made out to be a liar and trouble-maker
  • Being picked on
  • Doubting self worth
  • Feeling of going mad or crazy
  • Vomiting in the morning at the thought of more bullying at work

The bullied victims have appraised the workplace events and have placed a personal significance on those events. Appraisals of situations will 'precede and elicit emotions' (Reeve, 2009). The research of Arnold (1960, 1970) found that when interacting with the environment, limbic system brain structures (amygdala) 'automatically appraises the hedonic tone of sensory information'. This has been confirmed by recent neuroanatomical research (LeDoux 1992) that the limbic system (particularly the amygdala) is the 'focal brain centre that appraises the emotional significance of sensory stimuli'. Therefore, according to Reeve (2009), full appraisal draws on both the subcortical (limbic system) and the cortical interpretations and evaluations.

Toxic workplace behaviour[edit | edit source]

WHAT TYPES OF BEHAVIOUR ARE CONSIDERED WORKPLACE BULLYING? The following workplace behaviour identification was the result of interviewing persons who worked in toxic workplace. The are 'toxic' because they result in workplace injuries. Many episodes of the following behaviour occurred in clusters - not episodes in isolation. Is this your work environment?

  • Malicious rumours
  • Persistent criticism
  • Threats
  • Shouting/swearing
  • Insults/name calling
  • Labelling
  • Boss/supervisor flying into rages
  • Public humiliation
  • Exclusion
  • Efforts undervalued
  • Ideas stolen?
  • Pushed into a smaller office
  • Talked to via a 3rd party
  • Punished out of the blue
  • Given unsuitable/menial tasks
  • Threatened
  • Physically attacked
  • Work sabotaged

These types of behaviour result in emotions that cause a bodily arousal which can be identified as a physical injury through testing. The emotions engage the whole person and cannot be separate from the bodily arousal. According to the differential emotions theory, each emotion has its own specific rate of neural firing and has its own unique subjective phenomenological quality (Izard, 1991).

  • Over-monitoring
  • Supplied with incorrect information
  • Information withheld
  • Receiving constant changes
  • Forced to sign incorrect appraisals
  • Relationship with peers destroyed

These socio-deviant behaviours can cause injuries and post traumatic stress disorder (Feeley 2005) which is an anxiety disorder.

Post traumatic stress disorder[edit | edit source]

CAN WORKPLACE BULLYING CAUSE A POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (PTSD)? The magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan will show differences in patterns of brain activity for persons suffering from PTSD.

Scrignar’s (1997) classifications of symptoms of PSTD are accepted in court (if you wish to go there).

  1. Nervousness
  2. Preoccupation with the trauma
  3. Pain or physical discomfort
  4. Sleeplessness
  5. Flashbacks and nightmares
  6. Deterioration of work or family
  7. Phobia/fearfulness
  8. Personality change
  9. Dudgeon. Outbursts of anger.
  10. Depression

Injuries[edit | edit source]

Bullying can cause a heart condition[edit | edit source]

HOW CAN WORKPLACE BULLYING CAUSE A HEART ATTACK? Bullying can induce identifiable physiological changes such as an increase in the pulse rate and an increase in blood pressure which puts pressure on the heart. Tuckey et al (2010) researched an association between poor cardiovascular health and poor psychological health and found that negative workplace behaviour was associated with increased mental health problems. This could lead to depressive episodes according to the World Health Report on Mental Health (WHO 2001).

Anxiety produces a rapid heart rate and you may experience flutters and palpitations because of the irregular heartbeats. This occurs because of the increased irritability of the heart that is caused by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system fibres. The stimulus of the sympathetic nervous system (the part of the body that prepares for ‘flight or fight’) involves the secretion of a rush of adrenaline which is prone to precipitate the dreaded arrhythmias which often results in angina and subsequent cardiac arrest.

The emotion of anger is a dangerous emotion and an anger fuelled temper can increase the likelihood of a heart attack (Reeve 2009).

Workplace bullying causes an impairment[edit | edit source]

WHAT IS AN 'IMPAIRMENT'?‘Impairment’ means… ‘to damage or weaken something, especially in terms of its quality or strength…’ (Chambers 2004).

Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary (1993) defines it as ‘any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function’. In formulating the Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment, the American Medical Association states it is a loss of use or derangement of any body part, or organ system, or organ function.

If you intend to litigate, have the word ‘impairment’ liberally sprinkled throughout your medical reports.

Mental injury and biological disadvantages[edit | edit source]

Kendell (1975) stated that mental illnesses carried intrinsic biological disadvantages. The DSM IV, states ‘There is much physical in the mental disorder and much mental in the physical disorder’. Sanders and Keshavan (1998) found most of the signs of a neurological examination in adult psychiatry can be reliably evaluated and validated with an EEG.

Panic attacks are defined by tachycardia exceeding 90 beats per minute, dry tongue/mouth, sweaty palms and/or the extremities of the body, cold clammy skin, skin pallor, pupillary dilation, tremor and the fluctuations in blood pressure with wide pulse pressure. These physical signs are psychophysiological correlates of acute anxiety and hence of panic attack and disorder (Gupta 1996). Accordingly, the research of Kutas and Federmeier (1998) has stated that:

(c)ognitive and affective processes and bodily ones are often closely (if not causally) related…some of the same brain areas take part in both bodily regulation and the cognitive processes creating an indirect relationship between the mind and the body…

Your rights[edit | edit source]

Australian Public Service[edit | edit source]

WHAT ARE YOUR RIGHTS? If you are an Australian public servant, your employer (the government) will probably state that any workplace bullying you complain was merely a ‘legitimate comment’.

Workplace harassment must not be confused with legitimate comment and advice Australian Public Service Commission

However, safe and healthy working conditions are enshrined by the United Nations and the government is liable for your workplace injuries. Remember, the emotions of fear, anger, disgust and sadness will cause to feel threatened. The bullying events are threatening and harmful and you will feel fear as you anticipate what will happen. Once that harm has occurred, you will feel anger and sadness. Anger will motivate you to fight and sadness will lead to inactivity and withdrawal. The emotions of fear, anger, disgust and sadness will cause a biological reaction subsequently, your workplace could have caused you a serious injury.

United Nations Article 7 UCESCR[edit | edit source]

HOW CAN YOU COPE WITH A TOXIC WORKPLACE? The United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO) state that you are entitled to safe and healthy working conditions.

UCESCO Article 7
International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)

The States to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular:

(b)Safe and healthy working conditions;

A safe and healthy workplace will not harm you. A toxic workplace can harm you and elicit emotions of fear, anger, disgust and sadness. Emotions do not 'occur out of the blue' (Reeve 2009). There is a reason for the emotions and each behaviour from an emotion will facilitate your adaption to the situation and 'fuel cognitive development' (Reeve 2009).

World Health Organization Act (Cth) 1947[edit | edit source]

The World Health Organization Act (Cth) 1947 approved of Australia becoming a member of the WHO and Australia became a signatory. The First Schedule of the WHO Act 1947 states that ‘Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.

Victimization in any workplace is a form of violence. In 1996, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared violence to be a major worldwide public health problem. The European Commission, DG-V (Wynne et al 1996) has accepted that equal emphasis be given to the damage caused by verbal assault, threats and intimidation for ‘incidents where persons are abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances related to their work, involving an explicit or implicit challenge to their safety, well-being or health’.

Be aware of torture techniques[edit | edit source]

WHAT ARE THE TORTURE TECHNIQUES IN A TOXIC WORKPLACE? There are standard torture techniques in war. Whatever the war, Biderman’s stages for torture are consistent. Robyn Mann (1996) identified that war torture techniques that can be replicated in the workplace to break a person down and destroy them. Techniques include isolation, making the victim aware of the bully’s power, threats, overburdening the victim with demands, occasional indulgences, degradation, and enforcing trivial demands. Bullying and victimization can begins succinctly and slowly develops into a reign of terror. This type of workplace situation will cause the emotions of fear, anger, disgust and sadness ad cause biological reactions. A rapid rise in blood pressure could be the biological basis for anger (Reeve 2009).

How doctors for the defence could fudge your medical reports & psychological tests[edit | edit source]

WHY DO SOME DOCTORS' REPORTS DIFFER? Wilkie (1996), a Brisbane psychiatrist, identified how some doctors for the defence could fudge medical reports. Be aware of these tricks:

  1. Labelling post-traumatic stress disorder as mild depression.
  2. Misinterpreting psychological test results because some of the symptoms for PTSD are the same as mild depression.
  3. There is one psychological test that requires the patient to answer a large number of questions that have a built-in Lie Scale. If the Lie Scale is raised, that means that the person may be trying to give the expected answers.

Some doctors for the defence will claim that an increase in the Lie Scale indicates that you are lying and therefore your account of the injury could be a lie. What this really means is that the test could be lying – not you. Doctors should not interpret psychological tests as this is the work of properly trained psychologists.

Bodily reactions to workplace bullying[edit | edit source]

Your emotions are a response to your toxic work environment and they exist as subjective, biological, purposive and social phenomena (Izard, 1993). The bodily arousal component includes your neural and physiological (biological) activation which includes the activity of the autonomic and hormonal systems. Your brain activation, bodily arousal and physiological activities are intertwined (Reeve 2009). Your bodily reactions from the toxic workplace environment will cause: (Feeley, 2005)

  1. Heart palpitations
  2. Skin irritations and blotches
  3. Insomnia
  4. Anxiety – detail this from above
  5. Backache
  6. Stomach problems
  7. Bowel problems
  8. Nausea
  9. Migraine
  10. Endogenous depression
  11. A reduced grey matter density in the temporal cortex which includes the hippocampus
  12. An increased perfusion in cingulate and paralimbic areas
  13. A reduction in altanserin uptake in the right hemisphere which also includes posterolateral, orbitofrontal and the anterior insular cortex
  14. The activation of the HPA axis which involves the stress neurotransmitters 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) or noradrenaline (NA)
  15. Stimulation of the neurotransmitter system has resulted in CHR (corticotropin-releasing hormone release from the hypothalamus and the subsequent release of adarenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) from the anterior pituitary gland
  16. Spasms in the bowel
  17. Spasms in the bladder
  18. Dyspepsia from disordered contractions of the stomach
  19. Dyspepsia from disordered contractions of the stomach
  20. Hypoglycemias (low blood glucose) which interferes with the function of the brain
  21. Changes in blood flow
  22. Stiff and sore muscles
  23. Increased tension of both agonist and antagonist muscle groups causing tremors
  24. Rapid heart rate and irregular heartbeats
  25. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system fibres
  26. Neurobiological dysregulation
  27. Increased respiration
  28. Involuntary nervous system sympathetic discharge reactive to realistic fears

It is important to remember that emotions you are feeling are biological reactions which prepare the body to face your situation and what you are experiencing is a subjective experience which has a bodily arousal component including the neural and physiological (biological) activation (Reeve, 2009). The bullying events in the workplace have activated your autonomic and hormonal systems in order to regulate your body's adaptive coping behaviour.

Emotional reactions to workplace bullying[edit | edit source]

Workplace bullying has induced such emotions and fear, anger, disgust and sadness. Fear is your emotional reaction to your interpretation of the bullying situation where your defence is motivated to provide you with coping skills or learning new adaptive responses. The anger you feel arises from feeling helplessness with your situation. Disgust is an emotion and its function is rejection of your situation and, of course, you will be feeling the emotion of sadness. This will motivate you to restore your environment. Each of these emotions will motivate you to take control to some degree. By having the medical tests, you are taking control and the emotion of interest will motivate you to seek out a solution so that you experience the emotion of joy when you have achieved your goal and desire of success.

The K-M Events Chart[edit | edit source]

Emotions help adaption and emotions will help you to cope with hostile situations. To help you understand the emotional behaviour that accompanies your emotions in the workplace, it is important that you document the events that are causing you the emotions. There are many challenges in life and problems to be solved and the emotions that you feel in a toxic workplace environment will be communicated to others (Reeve 2009).

The K-M Events Chart documents the workplace events in a logical ordered way so a pattern of behaviour emerges. Your body has prepared you to act emotionally to important life events (Reeve 2009) and working in a toxic workplace is an important life event which will cause an emotion to arise. These emotions will arouse your body to action and generate subjective emotional states and biological reactions with energy-mobilizing responses (Reeve 2009) which should be recorded.

Date Time Event Place Witness Action taken by you Response to your action Date of response How did you fee/react Was the response adequate Attach copy of relevant docs, e-mails, memos

Although the studies of Rhodes et al. (2010) advocate that organizations should consider the ‘ethical and organizational dimensions’ in understanding bullying, you should complete the K-M Events Chart for your own psychological well-being so that you can identify a definite pattern of bullying that is causing you actual injuries and that it is not just your perception. Working in a toxic work environment causes biological reactions as your body prepares to cope. Your emotions in the toxic workplace are not moods. Emotions are from significant life situations and also from the appraisals of their significance to your well being while moods come from mental events (Reeve 2009).

Summary Quiz

Choose the correct answer and click "Submit":

Which of the following is a bullying tactic?

Workplace Manipulation
All of the above

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Workplace bullying causes injuries. Different emotions produce distinguishable patterns of bodily activity in response to life events and situations. When the biological systems are activated, you will experience emotion and furthermore, you must cope with the impending threat. It is important that you understand the biological reactions to your emotions that have been caused by a life event or situation. This is to help you cope with the negative emotional responses that may have been caused by working in the toxic workplace.

References[edit | edit source]

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External links[edit | edit source]