Psychological harassment at work

n° 393 - May-June 2001


Psychological harassment is such a widespread phenomenon that many European countries are now devising legal provisions to deal with it. Psychological harassment at work is defined as repeated actions carried out by an employer or any person representing the employer with the aim of demeaning the employee and forcing him/her to work in humiliating conditions. Its success is tied to the fact that professional life and private life are closely linked, since one's job is often determined by socio-cultural factors and personal background.

This type of harassment, which aims to destroy a person's emotional balance in order to satisfy economic or power goals, targets a person's bodily presence at work. The harassed employee's movements and gestures become subject to arbitrary criticism. Contradictory orders and certain forms of moral persecution can strongly affect an employee's perception of reality and severely impair thought functions, making it virtually impossible to work.

Indeed, harassers have genuine harassing techniques: denial of personal contacts (the harasser no longer speaks or looks at the person), of working abilities (impossible tasks), punitive techniques, and isolation of the person to prevent other members of the group from siding with him/her. The harassed person reacts defensively, feels humiliated and incompetent, and can develop post-traumatic stress syndrome (nightmares, anxiety attacks, etc.)

Moreover, in the new context of the labor market, individual self-defense or collective solidarity mechanisms no longer work as they used to: due to widespread unemployment, people selfishly defend their personal interests and are willing to do anything not to lose their job. This attitude can lead to situations of domination and submission between employer and employees.

In this case, moral suffering comes from a loss of self-esteem and guilt feelings for not having defended a colleague, for instance. Shame and guilt are overcome through a transformation of negative values such selfishness, aggressiveness, violence, etc., into positive values. In the professional world, cynicism is synonymous with strength of character: it is good to dominate others; injustice and the suffering of others are considered "necessary" and valued, and willingness to go along with such attitudes is seen a sign of "manliness."

If nothing is done to end psychological harassment, its impact on a person's mental and physical health can be very serious. For this reason, it represents a serious public health problem. Networks of clinical specialists are now setting up cooperative programs with physicians and psychotherapists to listen to victims of harassment, help them analyze their situation, pull them out of isolation, rebuild their self-esteem, and help them find new jobs and live a normal life.

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