The emotionally unsafe workplace: How bullies, tyrants, and narcissists are hurting your business

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, commonly referred to as OSHA, obligates employers to maintain a safe and healthful work environment.

OSHA’s website states:

“OSHA’s mission is to assure safe and healthful workplaces by setting and enforcing standards, and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance. Employers must comply with all applicable OSHA standards. Employers must also comply with the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, which requires employers to keep their workplace free of serious recognized hazards.”

When most of us think of OSHA, we think hard hats, proper storage and disposal of hazardous substances, and prominently displayed Exit signs. We certainly don’t think about psychological or emotional health, because OSHA doesn’t cover that.

And more’s the pity, because many employees are regularly abused in their workplaces, and these poor souls could use some protection.

Make no mistake, however. The employers of mistreated workers are taking it on the chin, too. Workplace aggression comes with a huge price tag.

Emotional abuse defined

Healthy Place defines emotional abuse as “any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.” Among the list of abusive behaviors listed on their website is “unreasonably ordering an individual around; treating an individual like a servant or child,” which is a classic tyrant behavior.

The “hidden” cost of workplace meanies

Listen, I know some are uncomfortable with labels, but bullies, narcissists, and tyrants have earned their moniker fair and square. These are not folks having a bad day. Their unconscionable behavior is persistent, without justification, and highly damaging.

Direct bottom-line costs associated with workplace emotional abuse include:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased presenteeism
  • Increased use of medical and disability plans
  • Legal fees
  • Severance payouts to targets
  • Recruiting fees related to increased turnover

One study put the annual employer cost at $250 million.

Keep in mind that the target isn’t the only affected party; witnesses to the abuse also suffer.

Emotional health is nothing to sneeze at

A recent article in Workforce magazine boldly stated: “Mental illness is the workplace’s dirty little secret. Employees want to hide it and employers don’t want to hear about it.”


According to the article, mental health conditions costs employers between $80 and $100 billion in lost productivity each year.

While someone who’s become clinically depressed following emotional abuse in the workplace may not have a mental illness per se, the Workforce article remains relevant, because targets of workplace abuse often present to healthcare providers in emotional distress, boasting anxiety, sleep disturbance, irritability, and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, and well as the aforementioned depression.

And like anyone experiencing signs of psychological upset, these employees are keenly aware of the stigma attached to mental illness. They may also fear their employer’s hostility toward a claim of emotional distress caused by workplace abuse. This awareness and fear, as well as shame at “allowing” themselves to be abused, prevents some employees from pursuing the help they really need.

What to do?

Employers must resolve to both identify and address abusive behavior at work. If compassion for employees is no incentive, the ginormous associated costs should be.

Employers must also work to remove the stigma of mental illness. It’s absurd in this day and age, with all we know about the mind-body-connection, for employers to deny that sometimes employees will have emotional issues that require attention. There should be no shame in it.

Learn more about aggression in the workplace and how to deal with it with this complementary whitepaper: Incivility and Other Types of Workplace Aggression



Add yours
  1. 1

    Having worked for a major oil company in the US for many years this type of behavior is prevelent in the rank and file population and continues even now. A company can promote a hostile free work environment but unless front line managment and middle management are accountable for ensuring it is practiced and the “good old boys” are held to the same standard this type of abuse will continue. Having said that, it’s just as important for rank and file to know and understand what this type of abusive behavior looks like and how it presents itself in the workplace. Unfortunate many folks are raised to believe this type of behavior is acceptable so they bring it into the workplace and don’t see, recognize or understand why its a big deal. So training is the order of the day…training, training, training. Thanks for a great article.

  2. 2

    As an employee of a State Agency, rank and file and some managers are treated this way every day. Some Managers and Supervisors abuse their power on a daily basis. If he/she doesn’t like you even though you are an outstanding employee, with the snap of their finger you’re gone. He/she uses this power in a way that other employees see it and are afraid to stand up for themselves or others because it will come back and happen to them. Management pushes training in ethics, workplace violence, sexual harassment etc. and the reality is they don’t follow their own rules. Its very sad when good employees want to make a difference but their Supervisor/Manager acts in an unacceptable way and gets away with it. They don’t care about the company, just the power they have to ruin one’s life.

  3. 3

    You’re doing your message a disservice by lumping “mental illness” in with workplace abuse. People who suffer from mistreatment at work aren’t mentally ill — they’re mentally injured. Receiving justice and compassion would go a long way in helping them recover from intentionally injuries their abuser inflicted, while labeling them “mentally ill” just opens them up to further shaming and blaming for their tormentor’s abusiveness.

  4. 4
    Dawn Roberts

    It has been my professional experience that Human Resource departments promote drama. They feed the “grapevine”. It is their job to listen and hear what goes on in a company and report to upper management as necessary to assist with managing potential unpleasant situations among employees. When HR feeds the grapevine, or goes to upper management demanding that upper management promise not to talk to another employee about what was said or they won’t tell them, that’s cutting off communication, unprofessional conduct, and plain abuse. Nowhere have I seen this addressed. Workplace health extends all the way up the food chain, let’s face it. While I think training is essential, it is equally essential to remove those who promote unprofessional behavior, by example, from the workplace. No amount of training is going to change how HR handles situations unless HR is held accountable. Their role is NOT to create unnecessary conflict between management, owners, and talented employees, but to promote positive relationships. Let’s keep that in mind. Things are not always as they seem!

  5. 6
    francis welsh

    I went to human resoureces about being harassed and threanted by employees and end up being fired for sexual herassment. I have names and phone numbers of employees that will that I wasnt the only one joking around.

  6. 7

    I feel do to many “at will” states, people do not see what can be done about this.

    Even though osha can investigate bullying, the managers can also scare the heck out of employees for standing up for themselves.

    Employers need to see that people should NOT be treated this way. They need to be proactive about this, realizing this is not just bad for business but says the company does not care about the people that make them money.

    If filing complaints with OSHA is what is needed to be done, then so be it. Companies will not think about it till it hits them in the profit line.

    If having OSHA investigate bosses, employees, companies will help then we need to have that done more. The companies need to be held accountable for their employees actions when they will not step up to do anything about it.

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