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Workplace Bullying: What Hurts? What Helps?

Bullying is not confined to schooldays, or the domestic sphere. As the UK marks Anti Bullying Week, international specialist Pat Ferris shares her insights in to the particular psychological impact of workplace bullying, from rumination through to psychosis, and proposes we use a complex PTSD framework to help clients whose trust has been trampled.


I have been treating targets of workplace bullying (WPB) for almost 25 years now. During this time, I was the Co-Convenor of the Therapist Special Interest Group of the International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment (IAWBH) for almost a decade. In this blog, I will share my insights about the development of psychological harm and the core issues in treating targets of WPB.

Clients who experience WPB experience psychological violence and betrayal that has been compared to domestic abuse. Within the domain of work, policies and legislation assure us that our workplaces are physically and psychologically safe. When WPB occurs and an organisation acts early in a supportive manner and follows its policies, the psychological impact of WPB is often mild, and can be treated in a short-term counselling framework that provides support, debriefing and rebuilding confidence.

Contributing factors

But when the organisation chooses to be blind and / or does not act on its policies to support all parties and end the bullying behaviour, the target experiences a betrayal that they have a hard time processing. This often leads to excessive rumination, creating additional psychological damage.

Beyond the depression and anxiety disorders that develop after exposure to WPB, betrayal trauma can develop.

Clients may experience betrayal from Human Resources personnel who:

  • do not provide help
  • do not conduct fact finding
  • stonewall and ignore organisational processes
  • conduct biased investigations with witnesses who lack credibility – for example, friends of the perpetrator

Other betrayals often follow. Mediation is often an inappropriate intervention that damages clients further. Disability Managers and workers’ compensation organisations often demand so much proof and so many witnesses that it becomes impossible for targets of bullying to meet the requirements for funding. Many find themselves either fired or on precarious disability programmes, which increases distress.

As a therapist, you may find yourself implicated in the organisational mishandling of the situation. Often the therapist is framed as inept, ‘working the system’ for their client. Or, they are outright ignored by such organisations.

The psychological and neurological impact

The targets of workplace bullying have had their basic psychological needs trampled. These needs include:

  • being part of a valued group
  • promotion of self-esteem
  • having some control
  • distress avoidance

At this point, many clients become hypervigilant, suspicious and some develop a psychotic disorder.

The work of Eisenberger and Lieberman suggests that the messages received from exposure to WPB may be carried on pain neurons. My colleagues and I find that those exposed to workplace bullying present with numerous somatic complaints. Clients become severely emotionally dysregulated, highly ruminative, and often so focused on achieving justice they destroy their lives. Studies on WPB now show neurological damage in the brain after exposure to WPB.

Using a complex PTSD framework

Treatment becomes complex in the face of such damage. ‘Complex PTSD’ is the best framework for clients in this state, and a trauma informed supportive treatment approach is needed. The therapist must first establish the therapeutic alliance. This will take more time than with other clients because trust in humans has been destroyed.

Initial treatment strategies that educate the client on WPB and provide them with the skills to manage emotions (e.g. meditation, hypnosis, breathing) will be helpful. Then treatment can focus on developing health promoting behaviours. Third wave Cognitive Behavioural Therapy strategies such as ACT and Rumination based CBT, as well as Narrative Therapy and Art Therapy, are reported to be effective.

Throughout all of this, the therapist must be mindful of the fragility of the client’s trust, the many demands that bullied clients can make on the therapist, and our own self-care. It can be a tough go. But seeing people recover and re-establish a career and life after workplace bullying have been some of the most rewarding parts of my career.


Pat Ferris

Pat Ferris (MSW, RCSW, M.SC, PhD) has been a mental health counselling professional since 1979. She has a Masters degree in clinical social work and a Ph.D. in industrial organisational psychology. She is registered as a Clinical Social Worker. Pat’s 40+ years experiences in counselling and consulting in mental health and her 25+ years consulting, training and coaching in the workplace provides her with broad insights to helping both individuals and companies achieve their mental health goals. Pat was a partner in a large private practice that delivered both corporate and individual services. In this role, Pat led a team of clinicians and trainers to deliver counselling services, critical incident services, training, and assessment services.