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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This entry was posted on Saturday, October 3rd, 2015 at 5:32 pm and is filed under Science. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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