When workplace pressure becomes emotional abuse

Let's face it, most of us have worked for bosses who blew their stack at the drop of a hat; or worked in an office where the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. In many cases, the stress is induced by one or two people who seem to thrive on the negative energy. It's their reason for getting out of bed every morning. For the rest of us, though, making it through the day working with them can be a challenge that we can't leave behind us at the office.

But when does the office pressure cooker become more than just the ups and downs of the daily business grind? At what point does a hard-working professional get to blow the whistle to warn their boss or co-worker(s) that the line has been crossed? We'll use this post to discuss what the law says about pursuing civil litigation against emotional abusers in the workplace.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress

States across the U.S. recognize the negligent and criminal act of intentionally inflicting emotional distress on someone. Workers are allowed to quit their jobs and receive unemployment benefits if their employer engages in constructive discharge; deliberately inducing stress in order to force the person to quit, rather than get fired illegally.

Most people recognize verbal abuse when they see it on the job. Perhaps a boss berates a subordinate in front of others, or deliberately uses language they know will be offensive to the worker. We all know the cuss words. But emotional abuse can be just as damaging as verbal and even lead to longer-term psychological damages.

Not everyone will have the same experience with emotional abuse on the job. Some employees will actually find an excuse to accept it, saying the boss is helping them become better at their jobs. Others will sit right next to it in the cubicles and not know their co-worker next to them suffers the abuse daily. Some of us are just blind and deaf to abusive situations, but they are abusive, all the same.

Some characteristics of emotional abuse on the job that may go unnoticed for a long time include:

  • Jokes, sarcasm aimed at specific individuals, often accompanied by the explanation that "We're laughing with you, not at you"
  • Unjustified constant monitoring of daily or even hourly job tasks. This can include moving the worker's desk within eyesight.
  • On the other side of the spectrum, deliberate neglect or isolation of the worker
  • Violent physical anger taken out on office equipment or objects in the immediate vicinity of the targeted worker

Suing for emotional abuse on the job

The courts have made it clear in several cases that emotional abuse is real and can result in damages paid to the victim. To prove it, the victim must demonstrate two important factors are at work on the job:

  1. The abuser has intentionally engaged in specific activities designed to inflict emotional distress on the targeted worker or workers. Some supervisors, managers and even company owners are more 'high-strung' than others and are quick to show their emotions under stress. But unless the behaviors are deliberately designed to cause distress with a purpose in mind, the courts may think the person needs therapy, but is not necessarily an emotional abuser.
  2. The abuse must also fall into a category of regular and repeated behaviors. Courts are not likely to accept a lawsuit claiming emotional abuse in the event of a one-off tirade after a business deal goes haywire.

Attacking your self esteem

A real abuser has one goal in mind -- to attack your self-esteem and bring you down to a level where they feel superior. There is no place for this kind of behavior on the job. If you feel you have been driven out of a job by a supervisor, manager, owner or even a co-worker who regularly displayed the behaviors of an abuser hoping to cause you distress, you have legal options available to pursue.

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