Trouble sleeping? Blame your bullying boss and co-workers

Perhaps your boss is a screamer. Or maybe he gets off on saying he should never, ever have hired you. Maybe it's your coworker who's always blabbing to other colleagues about the mistakes you've supposedly made on the job.

If any of these situations sound familiar, you're probably dealing with a workplace bully. And it isn't pretty. Now, just in time for Labor Day, a study in the scientific journal SLEEP finds that exposure to bullying in the workplace can seriously disturb sleep. That, of course, comes on top of the headaches, reduced productivity, and other problems that abuse at the office can cause.
Men experiencing workplace bullying are 2.29 times more likely to report sleep disturbances, according to researchers from University College Dublin in Ireland, who conducted the SLEEP study. (Women have 1.73 times as much trouble sleeping.) "Our study underlies the need to better understand and prevent occupational risk factors, such as bullying, for sleep disorders," says principal investigator Isabelle Niedhammer.

Roughly 11 percent of women and 9 percent of men have experienced "hostile behavior" at work at least once a week for at least six months during the last year, according to the study. Some 54 million Americans have been bullied directly, reports the Workplace Bullying Institute (whose very existence is testament to the magnitude of the problem).

And it costs companies money. The institute estimates that U.S. businesses lose more than $8 million annually in lost productivity from bullying, and at least $16 million in employee turnover. "The anguish of bullied employees forces them to pay with their health -- both psychological and physical -- that affects them, their co-workers and their families," says the institute's website.

And you don't even have to be the one bullied to feel its effects. Women who observed bullying were 20 percent more likely -- and men were 60 percent more likely -- to have trouble falling asleep, or to have difficulty going back to sleep after awakening prematurely. Lack of sleep isincreasingly been associated with increased risk of heart disease, depression, and other serious medical conditions.

The study looks at responses to 45 forms of bullying among 3,132 men and 4,562 women, with a mean age of 40, in France. But workplace trauma psychologist John Nicoletti says the results apply to workplaces anywhere. "Ninety-nine percent of the clients I work with on workplace bullying have a looping response, where you continue to think about the incident like a video that keeps replaying," says Nicoletti, co-founder of Nicoletti-Flaters & Associates in Lakewood, Colorado. "From my experience, anytime there is looping, you'll have sleep disturbance."

The worst kind of bullying is when bosses and coworkers are threatening, or even physically violent. But chronic abusive behavior, such as degrading statements -- "You don't know what you're doing! Why can't you do anything right?" -- can also be very damaging to employees. "It creates a lot of social or psychological distress," he says.

Nicoletti recommends that bullied employees confront their aggressors if possible, telling them they will not tolerate the behavior. If they don't feel comfortable doing so, they should go to human resources, he says. If the bullying is more about intimidation, he counsels not to get defensive but to "ask the person 'What is it you want to focus on?'" he says. "Keep them on task." The Workplace Bullying Institute also has resources for workplace bully victims.

The bad news is that the economic crisis seems to make matters worse, as more workers are stressed. Some 27.5 percent of respondents surveyed by the institute in June said that bullying at work had become more frequent since the financial meltdown began last September. Another 22 percent of the 454 respondents said that abusive behavior on the job had begun around the time the market meltdown occurred. If the sleep study is any guide, there's likely to be more insomniacs showing up at the office these days.
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