Are You Bullied At Work?


People with IBD sometimes have problems with the demands of full-time work. Whether it’s fatigue or pain or bathroom breaks, an ordinary work day can be very difficult. According to a recent study, there is yet another way work can be stressful: workplace bullying.

The study, published in BioMed Research International, looked at 700 patients (all in Italy). Of these, 397 had inflammatory bowel disease. The other diseases included autoimmune arthritis and psoriasis. To define the problem, the study authors provided subjects with following definition:

bullying takes place when one or more persons systematically and over time feel that they have been subjected to negative treatment on the part of one or more persons, in a situation in which the person(s) exposed to the treatment have difficulty in defending themselves against them. It is not bullying when two equally strong opponents are in conflict with each other

Subjects completed a survey that asked various questions about their health, and about workplace bullying.

Across conditions, 16.3% of patients reported workplace bullying; 15.4% of patients with IBD reported bullying, although there was no significant difference among the various diseases. 81% of bullied patients reported a pre-existing medical condition before the bullying began. Workers who were bullied were more likely – by about 12 percentage points — to report themselves “significantly impaired”.

In dollar terms, the authors estimate each case of workplace bullying results in lost productivity around $5,000. For those with IBD, the study found they were more likely to report significant impairment but less likely to take sick leave.

While this study included only Italian people, the study notes that other studies on workplace bullying estimate it affecting up to 27% in North America (but only 3.5% in Sweden!). Studies also show that exposure to bullying increases health problems:

Exposure to workplace bullying is associated with posttraumatic stress reactions, anxiety, depression, and insomnia as well as chronic fatigue, psychosomatic symptoms, musculoskeletal and gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, and hypertension.

The study is important in two ways: first, the authors note that as baby boomers retire, the economy will need more workers — including the older and sicker people normally excluded from jobs. This means that workplaces will have to adjust to having these workers, and helping them do their best. Obviously, if workers are being bullied, they are not able to work their best.

The other reason the study is important is because it confirms that workplace discrimination against people with chronic illness is not limited to hiring and firing decisions. In many developed countries, such discrimination is against the law, but those laws may not acknowledge the ‘hostile environment’ that workplace bullying can create. That means chronically ill workers are not well-protected from bigots and bullies at their jobs.

Workplace bullying is a form of discrimination that needs to be addressed, in order for people with chronic illnesses to have the same access to jobs and careers as their healthier peers.

The study is Fattori, A. et al. “Estimating the Impact of Workplace Bullying: Humanistic and Economic Burden among Workers with Crohnic Medical Conditions.” Biomed Research International 2015 (October). Available online free.

Photo “I Do Work Hard!” by Flickr user JulyYu used under a Creative Commons license

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