October 3rd, 2015

Suicide Risk Doubled by Workplace Bullying

At WBI, Dr. Ruth, I and several of the staff have listened to long-winded tales of misery endured at the hands of workplace bullies for many years. It amazes us that as many people survive the process as they do. It’s a testament to human resilience.

Suicide is the abandonment of hope, of not seeing any future, of not perceiving alternatives. It happens. How often it is the choice of bullied workers is not known. The international pioneer of the movement, Heinz Leymann, wrote in the early 1990’s that about 10% of those bullied do take their lives. It was his educated guess.

Now comes an important study from our Norwegian friends at the Bergen Bullying Research Group led by Stale Einarsen. The principal author of the study published Sept. 17 in the American Journal of Public Health is Morten Birkeland Nielsen.

The subtitle of the article is “A 3-Wave Longitudinal Norwegian Study.” The key contribution made by the study is that it measured the same group of people during three different time periods. Its longitudinal approach clarifies the sequence of events. It was a test to determine which caused which — bullying at work or considering suicide (the academics and clinicians call it suicidal ideation). The one that preceded the other can be considered a cause of the second.

The study overcame a problem common to all cross-sectional studies (in which different groups of people are measured only once) — the question of correlation between factors. That is, if we ran a study here at the WBI website of bullied individuals and asked two questions — have you been bullied and have you considered suicide — and the two scores were highly correlated, we still could not say with certainty that bullying caused people to consider suicide. The Nielsen, et al., study solved that problem with its unique tracking of a single group over time — in 2005, 2007 and again in 2010. In wave 1, 2,539 (our of 4500 solicited from a national random sample) returned the researchers’ surveys. By 2010, the sample was still at 1,291 individuals — the final group with three measurements.

Though the researchers were part of the BBRG, inventors of the 22-item NAQ (Negative Acts Questionnaire) that academics use to define whether or not a person has been bullied, for this study they relied on a single self-report question. Survey respondents read:

“Bullying (harassment, badgering, niggling, freezing out, offending someone) is a problem in some workplaces for some workers. To label something bullying, it has to occur repeatedly over a period of time, and those confronted have to have difficulties defending themselves. It is not bullying if 2 parties of approximately equal ‘strength’ are in conflict or the incident is an isolated event.” To which they responded to the question asking if they had been subjected to bullying during the last six months.

Suicidal ideation was captured by the single question: Have you experienced “thoughts about ending your life” during the past 7 days? The only other questions were gender, age and whether the respondents had changed jobs or workplaces. The researchers state that no study yet exists where workplace factors are combined with a host of other potential predictors of suicide to evaluate the relative contribution. There is another study that does place bullying in the context of several other negative work conditions and bullying emerges as the primary predictor of health problems. However Nielsen et al. did not explore a variety of potential predictors.

Then using sophisticated statistical modeling, well beyond the simple Pearson r correlation, the researchers tested all causal relationships between the experience of bullying and suicidal ideation across time. In brief, the explanations that best fit the results were that (1) previous bullying predicted later suicidal ideation, and (2) respondents who were not bullied at times 1 and 2 were unlikely to be bullied later. The major takeway from the analyses is that the odds (OR) of suicidal ideation by those previously bullied were twice the likelihood for people not ever bullied.

A statistical model that treated suicidal ideation as the cause of bullying was not supported by the data. This is also important. Business school researchers constantly search for victim precipitation factors. In other words, there must be something about the targeted person to warrant uninvited psychological assaults against them. They did something to provoke the bully’s reaction or their personality made them prone to targethood. This is nonsense. In the field of domestic violence, this argument was common among those who sought to rationalize the violence. But after its criminalization, this “blame-the-victim” rationale was abandoned by the courts and law enforcement.

There is a body of research identifying bullied targets as more emotional than others. But anxious personalities are not rare in our society. Witness the prevalence of anti-depressant drugs prescribed.

The beauty of the the Nielsen study is that it demonstrably ruled out the argument that if someone had considered taking their lives (suicidal ideation), then they faced no risk of being bullied (as if a personal weakness was exploited by others) in subsequent years.

The study clarified the known correlation between the experience of being bullied and considering suicide. Being bullied is one cause of thinking about taking one’s life. Being bullied led to suicidal ideation and not the opposite.

Our Experience With Suicide

Suicide figured prominently in one of the cases for which I provided expert witness services. It was a woman in a corporate setting. Her survivors won over $10 million in a private settlement.

In one 2012 WBI study of self-defined targets of bullying, 29% contemplated suicide; 16% developed a plan to take their life. A drawback of the Nielsen study is that they did not inquire if respondents made a plan, demonstrating further commitment and a higher risk of taking their own lives.

Following the causal direction of being bullied (for 33% of targets it is the first time in their lives they were abused by anyone) and health harm, the research literature is clear. Bullying causes severe health harm, much more acute than is experienced by those sexually harassed. Anxiety (80%), panic attacks (52%); depression (49%); PTSD diagnosis (30%); suffering intrusive thoughts/flashbacks (50%); sleep disorders (77%); hypertension (59%) to name some of the negative health consequences.

With prolonged exposure to distress, changes in the targets’ brains occur. Thanks to modern neuroscience studies of social phenomena like ostracism, stress and bullying, we know that atrophy of key areas of the brain impair decision making. Thus, it is highly likely that a brain flooded with steroidal glucocorticoids is not capable of clear, rational thinking. Suicide is the result of the failure to imagine alternatives to one’s current reality.

All health harm from bullying is attributable to prolonged exposure. Ending the distress allows the person to recover. The brain literally “heals” thanks to its property of plasticity. Restored gray matter volume brings back lost cognitive abilities — better decision making, optimism, a visualized future.

We hope the Nielsen et al. study makes it clear that being bullied does drive some people to despair and contemplating taking their lives.

You can download the study.
M. B. Nielsen, G.H. Nielsen, G. Notelaers, & S. Einarsen. Workplace bullying and suicidal ideation: A 3-wave longitudinal Norwegian study. American Journal of Public Health, Sept. 17, 2015, doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2015.302855

The potential for suicide by your employees who have requested relief from their bullying situation is reason enough to act.

We have solutions at WBI for organizations.


Gary Namie, originator of the specialty consulting field for workplace bullying, is co-author of The Bully-Free Workplace (Wiley, 2011) and Senior Consultant for WBI Services for Employers.

Request services by calling Frank Mulcahy, 713-545-2222.


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  1. Sandy Masterson says:

    I am surfing the web right now looking to see if I am the only person in the country who feels the way I do, being a teacher of 15 years. I am bullied by my boss, and the parents of the school. i am being forced to teach a severely disturbed child who needs special education teachers to work with him, i am sure that the principal all the way up will find a way to make it sound legal. this is some sort of legal case that i am not told anything about. except that it is now my responsibility to make a severely special ed student thrive in my general education class with 30 kids who have now since having this student join, receive less of my attention which this kid has now taken hostage from us, and i wish i could just quit. i feel so disappointed. I love these kids, the high the low the funny the quirky the sweet the quiet book worm. but my health physically and mentally have been declining. I have 2 doctors urging me to take work off, especially for a long standing back issue, and autoimune conditions like rosacea and hypothyroidism have been triggered and will get worse as i age. my hair is gray, black bags under eyes. every interaction with anyone from a power bracket above me send out unclear, scrambled, unplanned directives about my job that either take advantage of me, or completely shut me out like a child who doesn’t know the whole situation. I plan to quit either at the end or before the year. also in case any boo hooers out there, teachers dont get paid in the summer. that is one of the main reasons that the public doesn’t want to help us. NO PAY DURING EACH AND EVERY SUMMER PEOPLE. i live in santa clara county, NEA put out an article where they took the cost of living and a teacher’s salary, and basically charted which parts of california a teacher could actually have a chance to buy one, not even a guantee, only states that 0.0% of teachers in santa clara, san jose can afford a small home. On top of that being mentally abused, and expected to work at least 50-60 hours a week doing extra paperwork for the support staff and district office. emails come in about 25 every couple of hours or so. i read them at home now, you cant keep up. I never get told i am doing a good job, it’s do this, this isn’t good enough, written warnings for unnecessary isolated incidents, parents having more control over my classroom, and curriculum than me. I have no power, but am blamed and held accountable for kids not succeeding. And so goes to every public school teacher in this country (except i am assuming staff who have their eyes on admin. and more money because the classroom in an undoable job and will continue to get worse. I am going to quit because I can’t take it anymore. Luckily, i can support my son entering middle school, but other mothers who havent taught, or don’t work will really have it tougher. Education and Knowledge is the only way that a human being can become a positive member of their school and community, but if the community is nasty towards teachers, they are hurting their own children, and generations to come. as I said I can assist my son, i will pay for tutors in subject areas that are extremely difficult, and matter to getting into college. I will pay for college prep private education. the school system has broken me to pieces, I hope that people in the communities would stand up for teachers human rights, and dignity for being the professionals that we are. most of us have more education than most professionals and make a fraction of their salary, which leads back to teachers teaching this person and all people who can read and write and keep a job, may want to shake a teacher’s hand, instead of insult.

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