Psychological Abuse at Home and at Work

Psychological Abuse At Home and Work

By Randi C. Wood

Director, C-SEAP




Thanks to the Colorado Bar Association’s “Domestic Violence: Make It Your Business” project, hundreds of State of Colorado employees have received information and training about the impact of domestic violence on the workplace during the past three years.  While this project ends in December 2004, awareness and training activities will continue indefinitely.  The goal is to teach as many managers, supervisors, and employees as possible to recognize that a colleague may be involved in an abusive relationship, respond appropriately, and refer to C-SEAP and/or community resources.  The benefits of addressing domestic violence at work include increased productivity and safety, as well as the value of creating a culture in which employees are encouraged to speak the truth. 


When the subject of domestic violence comes up, conversations inevitably move in the direction of defining and clarifying the word “violence.”  Are the behaviors that describe domestic violence limited to physical abuse like kicking, punching, beating, slamming against walls, forced sex, and pulling hair, or do they include psychological abuse?  Indeed they do.  Psychologically abusive behaviors like name-calling, put-downs, and threats are demeaning, cruel, and often more painful and destructive than physical abuse.  Victims of domestic violence (both men and women) know that while a black eye or broken bone can heal, psychological abuse erodes self-esteem and self-confidence, and contributes to a life in which fear, anger, shame, humiliation, and sadness are the norm.  There are no casts or bandages for the wounded spirit, the damaged ego, or the loss of dignity. 


Unfortunately, the psychologically abusive behaviors that occur in domestic violence situations are similar to the psychologically abusive behaviors that sometimes occur between employees or between employees and supervisors/managers in the workplace.  When it happens at work, it is known as workplace bullying.  Gary and Ruth Namie, authors of “The Bully At Work,” define workplace bullying as “the repeated, malicious verbal mistreatment of a Target (the recipient) by a harassing bully (the perpetrator) that is driven by the bully’s desire to control the Target.”  According to Gary and Ruth Namie, “that control is typically a mixture of cruel acts of deliberate humiliation or interference and the withholding of resources and support preventing the Target from succeeding at work.”  Bullies often threaten careers and sometimes can inflict physical harm.  Like domestic violence, bullying behavior is always about power and control.  It is perpetrated by individuals who lack normal inhibitions, devalue coworkers, and put their own need to control others above the employer’s goals.  The workplace bully destroys morale and employees’ confidence; causes anxiety and depression; markedly lowers productivity; and impairs hiring and retention.  While tolerance for bullying is decreasing, our society is still relatively slow to take action against bullies.



Bullying is not a management style; it is abuse.  It is about anger and aggressiveness.    

If a co-worker or supervisor is bullying you, silence will not help you or your organization.  The best solution is to let the person know that the behavior is unacceptable and ask that it be stopped, or report the behavior to someone in management.  If you are afraid, consider calling C-SEAP for confidential counseling and/or referral in order to minimize your own emotional devastation.        


If you feel that you sometimes use your rank to control employees, or if you have been accused of being a bully, or if you sometimes remind yourself of the schoolyard bully from your younger days, you may want to contact one of the counselors at C-SEAP for coaching and assistance in becoming more aware of the impact of your behavior on your employees and yourself and to develop strategies for initiating new approaches to supervision or management. You may find that this will unleash a higher level of productivity and performance from your employees, and ultimately create an overall better working environment.


If you are a manager or a senior manager and you have an employee (at any level) who fits the description of a bully, you may want to consult with a C-SEAP counselor about assessment and referral options (treatable problems with alcohol, anxiety, or depression may be exacerbating the bully’s aggression), short-term C-SEAP counseling for the employee, or anger education classes.  Additional strategies to consider if you have a bully under your supervision include: focus coaching to modify abusiveness; 360 evaluations before promotions; and being certain that “treatment of others” is a serious part of the measurement and reward system.  It is estimated that one in six US workers is the target of a bully at work; C-SEAP and the workplace have a unique opportunity to work together to prevent bullying from occurring within Colorado State government. 


For more information about “Make It Your Business” and domestic violence at work, please visit or contact C-SEAP.  For more information about bullying, visit or contact C-SEAP for consultation.  C-SEAP provides assistance to any employee coping with psychological abuse from an intimate partner, a co-worker, or a supervisor/manager as well as to the perpetrators of such abuse. 





Further reading:

Brutal Bosses and Their Prey: How to Identify and overcome Abuse in the Workplace by Harvey Hornstein


Coping With Toxic Manages, Subordinates, and Other Difficult People by Roy Lubit,M.D.


The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity On the Job by Gary Namie and Ruth Namie