The Hidden Harm of Workplace Bullying

Workplace satisfaction isn’t the only thing at risk when bullying enters the office.

According to a large-scale European health study, workers who have encountered stressors such as workplace bullying or violence are at increased risk for a range of health complications, particularly cardiovascular disease. The research, published this month in the European Heart Journal, surveyed more than 79,000 employed men and women between ages 18-65 living in Sweden and Denmark.

The team polled workers on their own experience with workplace bullying and about whether they had been exposed to violence at work. About 9 percent of respondents reported being bullied; such incidents largely were at the hands of colleagues, supervisors and subordinates (79 percent) rather than external clients (21 percent). Thirteen percent of workers said they saw violence on the job.

Researchers followed the participants for 12 years and found that those who were victimized by workplace bullying were nearly 60 percent more likely than those who weren’t to suffer from heart disease and to have been hospitalized for heart attacks or strokes. Those who witnessed violence were 25 percent more likely than others to suffer from negative heart health.

Bullying and violence, the researchers noted, are social stressors that can lead individuals to turn to “passive coping”–such as overeating and excessive alcohol consumption–that could compromise heart health over time. Additionally, ongoing stress can cause hormonal changes that affect heart rate and blood pressure, raising the risk for cardiovascular disease.

Researchers noted that previous studies have generated conflicting results around the link between workplace bullying and heart disease, and few have addressed the health risks of violence in the workplace, focusing instead on how intimate-partner violence at home affects workers on the job. With workplace stress permeating all industries at unprecedented rates, and societal conflicts increasingly creeping into the workplace, the EHJ report suggests organizations need to take the long-term health of their employees seriously.

Lead study author Tianwei Xu of the University of Copenhagen told NBC News that, if workplaces were able to dramatically alleviate bullying and violence, we could see health improvements similar to those generated from successful prevention efforts around diabetes and alcohol consumption.

“If the association [between social stressors and heart problems] is causal, eliminating workplace bullying and violence would prevent a sizable number of CVD events from happening,” researchers wrote in their report.


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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at