Let’s end this toxic workplace problem that is making all our heads hurt, says Bonnie Low-Kramen

If bullying makes your head hurt, now we know why. According to Jennifer Fraser, PhD, author of The Bullied Brain, the human brain is visibly harmed by the chronic stress and often devasting cruelty caused by prolonged bullying and incivility. PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, can occur in both adults and children.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the harm is not irreparable. The damage can be healed, but it requires a return to psychological safety and a commitment by leaders to a zero-tolerance policy on workplace bullying.

But why is damaging someone’s brain at work normalized? Decades of scientific research document the physical harm to brains from all forms of bullying and abuse. The damage is visible on brain scans. Bullying is becoming a medical issue in the workplace, especially for Assistants.

In my work training Executive Assistants all over the world, they report stories of colleagues who intimidate and create a hostile work environment through incivility. Fraser defines workplace incivility as “low-intensity deviant acts, such as rude, profane, and discourteous verbal and non-verbal behavior.” Incivility in the workplace can be subtle, yet destabilizing and distracting, which is part of the manipulation. All of it takes a toll on the brain.

Jennifer Fraser explains that the human brain’s top priority is survival, and it works to find safety. A bullied brain is one that feels unsafe and dependent on others to acquire a sense of security, which is critical to mental and physical health. In the workplace, the powerful prey on those who have less power, and bullying is about domination, control, coercion. Incivility and bullying do not enhance the bottom line.

She says, “The more unsafe a brain feels, the less resources it can direct to problem-solving, connecting with others, creativity, and productivity. Instead, the brain’s resources go into assessing danger levels and surviving which includes bathing the brain and body in the stress hormone cortisol. Too much and too frequent influxes of cortisol can do significant damage to mental health and brain function.”

The Impact of Bullying on Your Brain

The detrimental impact of bullying can be seen in the following ways:

  • Trouble thinking clearly
  • Failure to understand social cues
  • Difficulty thinking through a problem
  • Poor behavior moderation (i.e., out of control or acting out)
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Self-harm and suicidal thoughts
  • Eating disorders and substance abuse
  • Headaches and stomachaches
  • Paralysis – inability to act or speak

In the workplace, Executive Assistants are dependent on their leaders to create a safe environment in order to do their best work. When bullying is tolerated, that creates an unsafe environment, which is toxic to the brain. Furthermore, the witnesses to bullying bear almost as much of the damage as the targets themselves.

There are currently no laws in the United States that specifically address workplace bullying, mainly because lawyers have difficulty defining what it is. Massachusetts is currently working to be the first state to pass legislation. However, there are laws that address the related issues of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace and bullying in schools.

Far too many Executive Assistants have witnessed or experienced workplace bullying and report symptoms of PTSD and negative impact to their ability to work at top efficiency and effectiveness. The science of the brain proves that it is time for a fresh look at ending this toxic workplace problem that is making all our heads hurt.

Bonnie Low-Kramen is the founder of Ultimate Assistant Training and is one of the most respected thought leaders on workplace issues. She is a TEDx speaker, bestselling author of Be the Ultimate Assistant and Staff Matters, and her work has been featured ... (Read More)

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