Workplace or War Zone?


“I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was with the company for more than 30 years. I had reached the level of supervisor. Then came the new boss. He was young, dynamic, and full of ideas. He thought I was in the way, so he started picking on me. After months of insults, lies, and humiliation, my nerves were shot. When the company offered me a retirement package, I agreed to leave.”​—Peter. *

PETER was a victim of workplace bullying. To use another word that has become common in Europe, he was “mobbed.” In Germany, where Peter lives, an estimated 1.2 million people suffer from mobbing at the workplace. In the Netherlands, 1 in 4 people will face it at some point in their working life. And a report by the International Labour Organization says that mobbing is an increasing problem in Australia, Austria, Britain, Denmark, Sweden, and the United States. But just what is mobbing?

A “War of Nerves”

According to the German newsmagazine Focus, mobbing is “frequent, repeated, and systematic harassment.” More than workplace banter​—which might include sarcasm, criticism, teasing, and practical jokes—​mobbing is a campaign of psychological terror. The goal is to make the victim an outcast. *

The tactics of harassment range from childish antagonism to criminal injury. The target is subjected to character assassination, verbal abuse, aggressive behavior, and the cold-shoulder treatment. Some victims are deliberately overworked or are regularly singled out to do the most unpleasant tasks that no one else wants to perform. Colleagues may sabotage  the victim’s efforts to work productively, perhaps by withholding information. In some cases, perpetrators have slashed a victim’s tires or hacked into his computer.

Some victims of harassment are targeted by one person. But more often, the victim is subjected to the assault of an alliance of colleagues. Hence, the term “mobbing” is appropriate, since it implies that a group is putting an individual under pressure by deliberately annoying or attacking him.

Perhaps most astonishing is the fact that in many cases harassment occurs with the boss’s consent. In some European studies, the supervisor played an active role in about 50 percent of the cases, and quite often he or she proved to be the sole perpetrator. All of this turns the work experience into what the German daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung termed as “a long, trying war of nerves.”

Effects Beyond the Workplace

Often, the effects of harassment reach far beyond the workplace. Many victims suffer serious health problems as a result of cruel treatment. Depression, sleeping disorders, and panic attacks are among the consequences of harassment. What about Peter, mentioned at the outset? His self-worth hit rock bottom. A woman named Margaret, also from Germany,  was advised by her doctor to seek treatment at a mental-health clinic. The cause? Harassment on the job. Mobbing can also adversely affect one’s marriage or family life.

In Germany, harassment at work has become so common that one health insurance company has established a help line for victims. The company found that more than half of those who called were unable to work for up to six weeks, about a third for up to three months, and over 10 percent for more than three months. A German medical journal estimates that “up to 20 percent of all suicides are a result of mobbing.”

Clearly, harassment can turn the work experience into a nightmare. Is there any way that it can be prevented? How can peace be pursued in the workplace?


^ par. 3 Names in this series of articles have been changed.

^ par. 6 Statistics suggest that more women than men are victims of harassment on the job, although this may be because women are more likely to talk about the problem and to seek help.

[Pictures on page 4]

Harassment turns work into a war of nerves