Bullying Around the Water Cooler

Workplace bullying linked to more use of psychotropic medication

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Bullying doesn't only happen on the playground. It occurs among adults too, even in the workplace. And there are hints that workplace bullying affects employees' mental health.

A recent study found that those who experienced or witnessed bullying at work were also more likely to take prescription mental health medication. But this link does not mean the bullying experiences cause the kind of distress or illness that may lead a person to get a prescription medication.

However, it does mean that someone experiencing or witnessing bullying will be more likely to be taking mental health medication.

"Report workplace bullying to your Human Resources department."

The study, led by Tea Lallukka, of the Hjelt Institute within the Department of Public Health at the University of Helsinki in Finland, looked at whether being bullied at work was linked to higher use of mental health prescriptions. The researchers included 6,606 individuals in their study, all employees of the City of Helsinki in Finland. The employees, about 80 percent women, were between the ages of 40 and 60 at the start of the study in 2000 through 2002.

The employees answered questions about experiencing current or past bullying or observing bullying in the work place. They defined workplace bullying or "mental violence" as "isolation of a member of the organization, underestimation of work performance, threatening, talking behind one’s back or other pressurizing.”

About 4.7 percent of the women and 5.3 percent of the men said they had been bullied in the past or were currently being bullied at work. About 10 percent of both women and men said they did not know if they had been bullied.

About half the women and 45 percent of the men said they had sometimes witnessed bullying at work, and 7.7 percent of women and 7.2 percent of men said they observed it frequently.

Then the researchers looked at the employees' insurance data to determine who had taken mental health medications during the three years leading up to the survey and in the five years following the the survey. Overall, 23 percent of the women and 17 percent of the men had been prescribed psychotropic medication in the five years after the questionnaire.

The researchers adjusted their analysis to account for differences among the respondents' in terms of their age, history of using mental health prescriptions, weight, occupation and past experience with bullying.

The results showed that women who experienced or observed workplace bullying were approximately 50 percent more likely to have been prescribed mental health drugs during the time studied. Men were about twice as likely to be prescribed them if they experienced or observed them.

The most common psychotropic medication found in their research was the use of antidepressants, which is among the most common mental health medications overall independent of this study.

"These findings further suggest that tackling workplace bullying helps prevent mental health problems among employees," the authors wrote. But this is not necessarily completely confirmed until more research can be done.

While the researchers took into account the respondents' history of mental health prescription use, they did not control for the temperament or mental health history of the individuals surveyed. It is possible that a person being prescribed mental health medication may be more sensitive to these kinds of situations in general.

Therefore, they may be more likely to notice, experience or interpret situations as bullying than someone who is not being prescribed mental health medications.

Additionally, the kind of person who seeks help and consequently receives mental health medication may also be more likely to be the kind of person who would report bullying since this study was based on self-reporting.

The study also did not look at the intensity of the bullying or how long it went on among those who reported it, so the researchers could not be specific in linking use of mental health medications to any level of severity in the bullying.

The study was published December 12 in the journal BMJ Open. The research was funded by the Academy of Finland. One author has received research funds from Janssen-Cilag, Novartis, Orion Pharma, Abbott, Novo Nordisk Farma, Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis, Astellas and Takeda. The other authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 11, 2012
Last Updated:
April 11, 2013