The Effect of Abusive Workplace Behaviours on the Other Spheres of Life

The Effect of Abusive Workplace Behaviours on the Other Spheres of Life  

Researchers have suggested that workplace bullying has been linked to various outcomes for the target, including health related issues (increased mental illness) such as generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD and depression (Vickers, 2014, p.98).  Furthermore, the Vickers review suggested that workplace bullying may “disable a person psychologically, leaving them functionally and permanently unable to work” (p.98).  The term “abusive supervision” has been defined as a “subordinate’s perception of the extent to which a supervisor engages in the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviours” (Tepper, 2000, p.178).  Examples of some workplace behaviours that have been described as being “highly dysfunctional” are: threats, yelling, insults, abusive language, destructive criticism, intentionally lying, intimidation and social isolation (Rose et al., 2015, Figure 1).  For the purposes of this article, abusive supervision consisting of hostile behaviours, the behaviours of dysfunctional leaders and the indicated behaviours are all considered to constitute workplace bullying.  Furthermore, it has been suggested that the effects of a dysfunctional leader (i.e., those who “treat their employees with a disrespectful approach”, Rose et al., p.64) may spillover to other parts of the organization, e.g., other units, groups or teams, (Rose et al., 2015, p.74).

Unfortunately, the effects of workplace bullying do not end there.  Others have suggested that in addition, there is a ripple effect, i.e.,  the effect of workplace bullying extends to other relationships outside of the workplace (Lewis & Orford, 2005, p.37).  These other relationships may include a targetʼs spouse, other relatives and children (Hoobler & Hu, 2013, p.265-266).  An important note made in the study being that not only is the marriage-relationship affected, but also the parent-child relationship (pp.265-266).  In addition, the Lewis & Orford study suggests that the ripple effect could also affect relationships with friends, i.e., failure of friends to support a target may result in the target withdrawing from the relationship with a friend (Lewis & Orford, 2005, p.36).  All of these other relationships outside of the workplace or “nonwork relationships” (Hoobler & Brass, 2006 p.1131) can be considered to be the targetʼs other spheres of life.  Other researchers in the field of workplace bullying have used different terms to describe the same phenomenon, i.e., work-family conflict (WFC) as being “the degree to which work spills over to negatively impact the home and family sphere” (Hoobler & Hu, 2013, p.256) and  “work-to-family conflict”, defined as the time that targets spend with their families becomes adversely affected by work-related matters (Tepper, 2000, p.181).  Finally, the negative behaviours of supervisors in the workplace have been described to “flow downhill” to nonwork relationships (Hoobler & Brass, 2006, p.1125).  Regardless of what term is used, they all describe a situation whereby a targetʼs other spheres of life are negatively impacted by workplace bullying.

The question then becomes – how are the negative effects of workplace bullying expressed in the targetʼs other spheres of life?  The following discussion contains the following actors – superior (e.g., a person in senior management), supervisor (in control of a work group), a subordinate (an employee who is a target) and the subordinateʼs (i.e., targetʼs) other spheres of life (family, friends).  It should be noted that bullying is considered to be a subset of aggression, i.e., bullying occurs as a form of behaviour that is repeated aggression (Obermann, 2011, p.135 and references therein).  Hoobler and Brass discuss how displaced aggression is an integral part of the workplace, workplace bullying and the work-family sphere, i.e., if a supervisor experiences a violation of their psychological contract with their employer (i.e., the supervisor feels as if they are not getting what they are entitled to), this may result in the supervisor enacting aggressive behaviours onto a subordinate employee (a target) and then the subordinate employee  may enact aggressive behaviours onto their family members (thus, becomes a form of displaced aggression), (Hoobler & Brass, 2006).  It has been suggested that this type of misplaced aggression onto the family sphere is a form of coping mechanism for the subordinate employee (target) having to deal with a dysfunctional supervisor (Rose et el., 2015, p.75).  Therefore, each person displaces their aggression onto those they feel that they have control of.  Thus, it can be seen how this displaced aggression works its way through the work-family sphere.  It is also noted that abusive supervision is a workplace stressor (Hoobler & Brass, 2006, p.1131); thus, one can envision how stress due to workplace bullying can ultimately have negative effects on the family sphere.  Furthermore, the term “family undermining”, is described as “actions that directly undermine and diminish the family memberʼs sense of self-worth” (Hoobler & Brass, 2006, p.1127).  This is a very powerful effect—diminishing oneʼs sense of self-worth; because self-worth is a critical part of oneʼs psychological well being.

Social undermining “is theorized to consist of behaviours directed toward the target person that display (a) negative affect (anger or dislike) or (b) negative evaluation of the person in terms of his or her attributes, actions, and efforts (criticism)” (Vinokur & van Ryn, 1993, p.350).  It has been shown that abused subordinatesʼ family members reported “sustained negative affect and negative evaluations directed toward them in the home” (Hoobler & Brass, 2006, p.1125).  Affect is defined as an emotional state (Barlow, Abnormal Psychology, p.61); thus, family members would experience the target taking out their negative emotions (due to a work related issue) on a family member.  In terms of negative evaluations, it has been suggested that employees that have been “put down” by their supervisor feel the need to “put down”  family members (Hoobler & Brass, 2006, p.1131) {where the colloquialism “put down” can be taken to mean: to criticize or disparage}; thus, one can envision how a subordinate employee (a target in the workplace) could criticize or make disparaging remarks to a family member in order to try to cope with a work related issue.  Refer to appendix below for examples of the items used in two surveys.  

Others have suggested that work-family conflict could include increased arguments, conflictual interactions (Hoobler & Brass, references therein, 2006), “confrontational behavior with a spouse” or “reduced family interactions”, such as missing important family events (Rose et al., references therein).  Furthermore, in the ripple effect, it has been suggested that stresses that develop in the workplace tend to interact with stresses inherent to the family sphere, which ultimately increase stress in the family sphere (Lewis & Orford, 2005, p.37).  In my personal opinion, these stresses may not add in a linear fashion, i.e., when a stressful situation from the workplace interacts with a stress in the family sphere, the resulting overall stress may be something greater than the sum of the two individual stresses combined.  One study found that as workplace bullying continued for a target, a previous strong and supportive relationship was unable to function well (Lewis & Orford, 2005, p.37).  Also, it has been suggested that the relationship between stress in the workplace and stress in the home is not necessarily straightforward, i.e., workplace stress does not simply lead to stress in the home (Hoobler & Brass, 2006, p.1131).  Furthermore, the authors suggest that negative interpersonal interactions in the workplace may serve as “emotional training grounds for negative home encounters” (Hoobler & Brass, 2006, p.1131).  Thus, from the above discussion, it can be seen that inappropriate workplace interpersonal interactions in the form of bullying, can have various effects in a targetʼs other spheres of life.  A good example of a term that has been used to explain this effect—workplace bullying has “the potential to contaminate family relationships” (Hoobler & Brass, 2006, p.1131), i.e., can be envisioned as: the overall quality of interpersonal relationships within the family is reduced.  One can think of this as occurring at two levels, i.e., not only are interpersonal relationships within a family negatively affected by workplace bullying, but the severity of the aggressive behaviours may vary in intensity.  

So, what are the potential solutions for a target of workplace bullying?  One study introduces the term “being heard”, where it is defined as “qualities of others’ listening and responses to [targetʼs] disclosures of problems at work” and targets highly valued others who listened to their concerns (Lewis & Orford, 2005, pp.35-36).  Another dimension within that phenomenon was identified and was termed “believing in [the target]”, which offered the target some “validation and protection of their sense of self (Lewis & Orford, 2005, p.36).  Therefore, listening to a targetʼs concerns and accepting their perspective may be one form of social support for the target.  On the other hand, questioning a targetʼs perspective may be harmful for the target because this action fails to allow the target to be heard (Lewis & Orford, 2005, p.36).  A study found that targets would stop talking about their experiences of been bullied in the workplace in order to to minimize unmanageable and extreme responses” from the listeners in their other sphere of life and this can be envisioned as the target withdrawing from that form of support (Lewis & Orford, 2005, p.38).  This loss of social support could be seen as a “secondary process of victimization” (Lewis & Orford and references therein, 2005, p.42).  Additionally, the authors suggest that individuals in the targetʼs other sphere of life were unable to provide all of the targetʼs needs, suggesting the need for other forms of support.

It has been further suggested that as a result of bullying, the target may develop an obsessive preoccupation with and have a constant need to talk about the situation (Duffy & Sperry, 2007, p.401).  There is a concept in psychology termed rumination and is defined to be the tendency to think about a stressful event over and over again (Gilovich et al., 2013, p.G-6).  Furthermore, people who ruminate, experience prolonged stress; thereby, making a specific stress chronic, which ultimately can lead to serious negative health effects (Gilovich et al., 2013, p.564).  Thus, one can see how an obsessive preoccupation with a workplace bullying issue can result in negative health consequences for the target.      

In conclusion, from the preceding discussion, it can be seen that workplace bullying has far reaching effects that extend well beyond the target, and can affect the employerʼs organization, as well as our communities (the targetʼs other sphere of life).  As a society, we need to address this issue.  One example of this could be employers utilizing workplace specialists (e.g., coaches or counsellors) specifically trained in workplace bullying to help them design effective workplace policies, that prevent workplace bullying from occurring in the first place, i.e., stop the “ripple effect” before it starts.  Workplace bullying clinical therapists can provide brief or long term recovery options to targets, bystanders, family members, and also those acting out with bullying behaviours.  Targets should seek support from organizational resources (human resources and unions) as a first step to resolving a workplace issue.  Additionally, targets should be encouraged to seek counselling from personnel trained in workplace bullying in order to fill the void that the targetʼs other spheres of life (i.e., family or friends) cannot fill.  A similar statement has been made in the literature, i.e., “for intervention to be successful it must include the victim, the family, and the organization” (Duffy & Sperry, 2007, p.401).


Terrance (Terry) Sereda, 27-April-2017


(1) Duffy, M. & Sperry, L. (2007). Workplace mobbing: Individual and family health consequences. The Family Journal: Counselling & Therapy for Couples & Families, 15(4), 398-404.

(2) Gilovich, T., Keltner, D., Chen, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2013). Social Psychology, 3rd Edition, W. W. Norton & Company Inc, New York, N.Y.

(3) Hoobler, J. M., & Brass., D. J. (2006). Abusive supervision and family undermining as a displaced aggression. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(5), 1125-1133.

(4) Hoobler, J. M., & Hu., J. (2013). A model of injustice, abusive supervision, and negative affect. The Leadership Quarterly, 24, 256-269.

(5) Lewis, S.E. & Orford, J. (2005), Women’s experiences of workplace bullying: Changes in social relationships. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 15, 29-47.

(6) Obermann M-L. (2011). Moral disengagement in self-reported and peer-nominated school bullying. Aggresssive Behaviour, 37, 133-144.

(7) Rose, K., Shuck, B., Twyford, D., & Bergman, M. (2015). Skunked: An integrative review exploring the consequences of the dysfunctional leader and implications for those who work for them. Human Resource Development Review, 14(1), 64-90.

(8) Tepper, B. J. (2000). Consequences of abusive supervision. Academy of Management Journal, 43(2), 178-190.

(9) Vickers, M. H. (2014). Towards reducing the harm: Workplace bullying as workplace corruption—A critical review. Employee Responsibility and Rights Journal, 26, 95-113.

(10) Vinokur, A.D., & van Ryn, M. (1993). Social support and undermining in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), 350-359.

Appendix –  undermining scales

Hoobler & Brass, 2006, p.1128 – Survey 3: (1) “the negative work events my partner/family member experiences often make it an unpleasant evening at home for me,” (2) “my family member/partner often takes negative work emotions out on me.”

Vinokur & van Ryn, 1993, p.353: perceived social undermining index – how much does the partner:

(1) act in an unpleasant or angry manner towards you, (2) make your life difficult, (3) show he or she  dislikes you, (4) make you feel unwanted and (5) criticize you.


The Effect of Abusive Workplace Behaviours on the Other Spheres of Life
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