Employees who are regularly humiliated, manipulated, or ostracised by their bosses can end up becoming mentally unwell, especially if the abuse is sustained over a long period of time. Effects can range from anxiety and insomnia to depression and problem drinking.
In the post-#MeToo era, we have a much greater understanding of the challenges that prevent or deter victims from escaping their abusers in (frequently violent) domestic abuse cases. In comparison, we know relatively little about why subordinates do not simply walk out on abusive supervisors.
Motivated to answer this question, I co-authored a research paper with Associate Professor Kimberley Breevaart from Erasmus University Rotterdam and Professor Barbara Wisse from Durham University Business School and the University of Groningen, investigating the reasons why employees don’t quit to escape maltreatment from higher-ups.
One key reason is a lack of vacancies in the job market. In the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, alternative employment opportunities can be difficult to come across, leaving abused workers feeling like they have no choice but to carry on in their current job.
The lack of clear regulations is another issue. Without unambiguous laws in place, the process for reviewing complaints and conducting disciplinary procedures against abusive supervisors is somewhat subjective to each company. Employees might wonder who they report their abuse to, and even whether reporting it will alleviate their problems or simply further incur the wrath of their abuser.
Abusers also weave a psychological net around their subordinates, making them less likely to leave. Workers might feel too exhausted to job hunt after work, or their self-esteem might be lowered so they believe they cannot get any other employment.
Alternatively, colleagues can develop a close camaraderie where abuse comes from more senior levels, making a peer network that can be hard to leave. Those with opportunities to escape may feel like they are abandoning their work friends.
Of course, none of these reasons are exclusive. Typically, several pile on top of each other, making it increasingly difficult for employees to remove themselves from toxic workplaces.
The first step to reducing this issue is acknowledging it, realising the challenges that face victims of workplace abuse, and supporting them rather than criticising them.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) may play a critical role in this, by officially recognising workplace abuse alongside domestic and elderly abuse as well as supporting awareness campaigns.
Restrictive labour markets are a challenge that will take much longer to solve. In the interim, governments can and should introduce legislation that better protects employees from suffering abuse. This can provide support for organisations when they enact changes to improve complaints and disciplinary procedures.
Companies must also take on their share of the burden by ensuring appropriate standards of conduct are specified in corporate policy. Disciplinary procedures should be rigorously examined to ascertain their effectiveness. Employees should feel safe and encouraged to speak up about instances of abuse if firms are serious about rooting out such behaviour.
Coaching and employment agencies also need to be aware of this issue so they can provide support for people who have fallen off their career ladders or are otherwise struggling in abusive work environments, or in the wake of abuse.
Birgit Schyns is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at NEOMA Business School, and has been since 2017. She has previously worked at different universities in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK before moving to France. Her research focuses around leadership, specifically the perception of leaders and negative leadership.