People who are bullied at work or experience violence at work are at higher risk of heart and brain blood vessel problems, including heart attacks and stroke. This is according a study – “Workplace bullying and workplace violence as risk factors for cardiovascular disease: a multi-cohort study” – done by Tianwei Xu et al. and published in the European Heart Journal.
It is worth stressing that the study was observational, and – as such – “cannot show that workplace bullying or violence cause cardiovascular problems”. However, it – nonetheless – shows that “there is an association (between the two),” and so the results “have important implications for employers and national governments.”
“If there is a causal link between bullying or violence at work and cardiovascular disease, then the removal of workplace bullying would mean we could avoid five per cent of all cardiovascular cases, and the eradication of violence at work would avoid more than three per cent of all cases,” said Tianwei, the lead researcher.
It is worth noting that members of the LGBTQIA community are more exposed to bullying. A study released last April 2018, for instance, investigated gender expression and victimization of youth aged 13-18, and it found that the most gender nonconforming students reported higher levels of being bullied, were more likely to report missing school because they feel unsafe, and are most likely to report being victimized with a weapon on school property.
Sadly, for LGBTQIA people who are bullied at school, the bullying follows them to the workplace. A study released in November 2018 found that 35.2% of gay/bisexual men who had experienced frequent school-age bullying experience frequent workplace bullying. Among lesbian women, the figure was 29%.
For Tianwei’s study in particular, the researchers looked at data from 79,201 working men and women in Denmark and Sweden, aged 18 to 65, with no history of cardiovascular disease (CVD), who were participants in three studies that started between 1995 and 2011; the participants have been followed up ever since. When they joined the studies, the participants were asked about bullying and violence in the workplace and the frequency of their experience of each of them. Information on the number of cases of heart and brain blood vessel disease and deaths was obtained from nationwide registries.
The researchers also took account of other factors that could affect whether or not the participants were affected by CVD, including body mass index, alcohol consumption, smoking, mental disorders and other pre-existing health conditions, shift working and occupation.
Nine percent of participants reported being bullied at work and 13% reported experiencing violence or threats of violence at work in the past year. After adjusting for age, sex, country of birth, marital status and level of education, the researchers found that those who were bullied or experienced violence (or threats of violence) at work had a 59% and 25% higher risk of CVD, respectively, compared to people who were not exposed to bullying or violence.
The more bullying or violence that was encountered, the greater the risk of CVD. Compared with people who did not suffer bullying, people who reported being bullied frequently (the equivalent to being bullied almost every day) in the past 12 months had 120% higher risk of CVD, while those who were exposed most frequently to workplace violence had a 36% higher risk of cerebrovascular disease (such as stroke) than those not exposed to violence, but there did not appear to be a corresponding increase in heart disease.
“Workplace bullying and workplace violence are distinct social stressors at work. Only 10-14% of those exposed to at least one type of exposure were suffering from the other at the same time. These stressful events are related to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease in a dose-response manner – in other words, the greater the exposure to the bullying or violence, the greater the risk of cardiovascular disease,” Tianwei said. “From this study we cannot conclude that there is a causal relation between workplace bullying or workplace violence and cardiovascular disease, but we provide empirical evidence in support of such a causal relation, especially given the plausible biological pathway between workplace major stressors and cardiovascular disease.”
The effect of bullying and violence on the incidence of cardiovascular disease in the general population is comparable to other risk factors, such as diabetes and alcohol drinking, which further highlights the importance of workplace bullying and workplace violence in relation to cardiovascular disease prevention. For Tianwei, “it is important to prevent workplace bullying and workplace violence from happening, as they constitute major stressors for those exposed. It is also important to have policies for intervening if bullying or violence occurs.”
Other interesting findings from the research included the fact that bullying in the workplace occurred mostly from colleagues (79%) rather than from people outside the organization (21%), whereas violence or threats of violence at work originated mainly from people outside the organization (91%), than from within (9%). This, combined with the fact that those exposed most frequently to workplace violence were not more likely to suffer from heart disease, suggests that workers may have received training about how to deal with violence they encounter as part of their jobs and may be better equipped to deal with it and avoid long-term consequences.