science of us

The Insidious Effects of Verbal Abuse in the Workplace

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Even if you haven’t read the New York Times interview with the cast of Arrested Development, you’ve probably already heard that it was — well, not great, particularly when the group was asked to address a time when Jeffrey Tambor had “blown up” at co-star Jessica Walter. Tambor insisted that he was “working on it” — “I had a temper and I yelled at people,” he said, “and that’s unconscionable” — while the men of the cast rallied to his defense (Jason Bateman, the one behind some of the interview’s most egregious comments, later apologized), and Walter cried while insisting that the two had made amends.

“It’s hard to deal with, but I’m over it now,” she said. “Verbally, yes, he harassed me, but he did apologize. I have to let it go.”

When it comes to the type of treatment they’re talking about, though, “letting it go” and “getting over it” aren’t actions that can simply be willed into existence. Nor does time necessarily heal wounds; Tambor’s blowup was years ago, and it was still upsetting enough to make Walter shed tears during an interview. We don’t know the specifics what was said between him and Walter, but we do know this much: The physical and emotional effects of verbal and emotional abuse at work — whether it comes from a boss or a colleague — can linger for a long time. The Cut talked to experts on workplace abuse about how to recognize it, the toll it takes on workers, and why it so often flies under the radar.

It’s not always so easily identified.
Explosive outbursts are pretty obviously problematic, but abuse in the office often takes a sneakier form, explains Loraleigh Keashly, a professor of communication at Wayne State University who studies conflict resolution. In a 1996 study titled “Emotional Abuse in the Workplace,” Keashly and her colleagues defined it as “hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors that are not explicitly tied to sexual or racial content yet are directed at gaining compliance from others” — a definition that included yelling and screaming, but also things name-calling, gossip, interrupting, ignoring someone, and withholding information.

These smaller slights may be a more common form of workplace abuse than the more dramatic blowups. “Usually, the individual behaviors don’t look like much,” she says. “It’s the patterning of it, the repetitiveness and persistence of it, that wears away at people.”

The problem, she adds, is that while these repeated digs add up, they’re not often recognized for the abusive behavior that they are. So many little instances, rather than one big one, “makes it hard for them to recognize what’s happening to them. And also to talk to other people about what’s happening to them, because it’s like, They ignored me in the hallway,” an anecdote that plenty of people would hear and shrug their shoulders at — which is precisely why the abuse can continue unabated, leaving the target without a way of coping. Social support at work has been shown to counteract the effects of job-related stress, but it’s a lot harder to access that support when you can’t put a name to the problem.

It can literally make you sick.
Like any situation that causes chronic stress, coming in to work each day with a sense of foreboding can have lasting health consequences. “The sense that one is being wronged, it creates a really strong physiological response,” says Alicia Grandey, an organizational psychologist at Penn State whose research focuses on employee stress. “Even if it doesn’t happen, if we think it might happen — we might interact with that person — we get that anticipatory stress response. And the longer our bodies stay in that state, the harder it is on our bodies.” The stress hormone cortisol, which floods the body during that fight-or-flight response, helps prepare us to be nimble and aware in response to perceived threats; over time, though, repeated exposure to too much cortisol can build up to a laundry list of nasty effects: trouble sleeping, anxiety, depression, increased blood pressure, heart disease.

And while it doesn’t sound nearly as dire by comparison, workplace abuse can also derail professional ambitions: Employees are too distracted by the constant threat of mistreatment to focus on their work, or they become emotionally exhausted to the point of burnout, or they lapse into absenteeism to avoid the abuser a few cubicles over. “It’s an exhaustion or fatigue where one feels like they can’t really deal at work anymore and they want to quit,” Grandey says.

It only happens in an office that allows it to happen.
Workplace emotional abuse is a three-way interaction: There’s the abuser, the person on the receiving end, and the company that creates the context in which it takes place.

“You might have somebody who’s more inclined to do this, but they’ll either be enabled by the organization to do it or prevented by the organization from doing it,” Keashly says. “I think that needs to be made clear: The organization will have a profound impact on whether these people do these things or not.” Sometimes, the culture of an industry will be enough to clear the way for abuse — maybe it’s a fast-paced, competitive line of work, or one known for breeding diva behavior, either of which offers up the easiest of excuses: That’s just the way things are done here.

The Arrested Development interview is case in point: “In the entertainment industry it is incredibly common to have people who are, in quotes, ‘difficult,’” Bateman told the Times.

Which, in turn, dovetails with Keashly’s other point: A culture is the product of the employees who work there. And “how they respond to [abuse] has profound implications for how things go forward,” she says. “One of the things we know is that this stuff usually occurs in the presence of other people, so the question is, what are these other people doing?”

The Insidious Effects of Verbal Abuse in the Workplace