Bullying at Work Affects Mental Health — Even in Bystanders

Bullying in the workplace increases employees' psychological distress and plans to quit their job—even for workers who aren't personally being bullied, reports a study in the December Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

The study by Kanami Tsuno, PhD, MPH, of Wakayama Medical University, Japan, and colleagues adds to previous reports showing "indirect harmful effects of workplace bullying in bystanders."

The study explored the "contextual effect" of workplace bullying, using baseline and one-year follow-up responses from more than 2,000 Japanese civil servants. Workers completed a questionnaire to assess bullying at work, rating the frequency of items such as "spreading of gossip and rumors" or "persistent criticism of your work."

Individual reports of being bullied at work were linked to increased psychological distress (such as depression) at one-year follow-up. Bullied workers also had higher ratings on  a scale assessing their intention to leave their job.

But these effects of individual-level bullying were no longer significant after further adjustment for bullying on the division and department levels. Division-level bullying had a greater impact on both psychological distress and intention to leave, compared to individual exposure to bullying.

This contextual effect "suggests that the presence of bullying in the workplace can be a strong indicator of mental health problems and intention to leave among work members, regardless of individual experiences or witnessing of bullying," Dr. Tsuno and coauthors write. "[B]ullying is not simply an interpersonal issue but is an organizational dynamic that impacts on all workers, even those who are not personally victimized."

Division-level bullying might be "a proxy for stressful working environment" or may have "negative spillover effects" on mental health and motivation in all workers. Dr. Tsuno and colleagues conclude, "The presence of workplace bullying is an indicator that calls for intervention by employers and occupational health staff."
About the Author  Dr. Tsuno may be contacted for interviews at ktsuno-tky@umin.ac.jp.
About ACOEM  ACOEM (www.acoem.org), an international society of 4,500 occupational physicians and other health care professionals, provides leadership to promote optimal health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments.
About JOEM — The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (www.joem.org) is the official journal of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Edited to serve as a guide for physicians, nurses, and researchers, the clinically oriented research articles are an excellent source for new ideas, concepts, techniques, and procedures that can be readily applied in the industrial or commercial employment setting.


Tsuno K, Kawachi I, Kawakami N, et al. Workplace bullying and psychological distress: a Longitudinal Multilevel Analysis Among Japanese Employees. J Occup Environ Med. 2018;60(12):1067-72.