Workplace bullying linked to more antidepressant, tranquilizer use

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Bullying is a problem that is prevalent in schools, but it can also exist in the workplace. The effects are still as harmful. A new study shows people who are bullied at work are more likely to be prescribed antidepressants, sleeping pills and tranquilizers.

The research, which was published on Dec. 12 in BMJ Open shows that Finnish women and men were 50 and 200 percent respectively more likely to have a prescription for these drugs if they reported being bullied at work.

Between 10 to 14 percent of people in Finland report being bullied at work. Workplace bullying has been known to decrease mental health in employees. However, before this study it has not been shown if bullying has been connected to increased prescription drug use to deal with mental issues. In addition, the effect of witnessing bullying or being at the receiving end of it has not been compared.

"Workplace bullying is about situations at work, where the victims are in an unequal position with respect to their bully and are unable to defend themselves against the negative actions," the authors wrote.

Researchers asked 6606 City of Helsinki, Finland employees about their experiences with workplace bullying between 2000 and 2002. They were asked to report whether they experienced or saw bullying. All participants were between the ages of 40 and 60 and were part of the Helsinki Health Study.

Five percent of employees said they were currently being bulled. Out of them, 18 percent of women and 12 percent in men admitted to being bulled before either at the same job or by another employer. About half of the subjects said they had witnessed workplace bullying at least occasionally, while 10 percent said they saw it quite often.

"We've all seen it go on," Dr. Nadine Kaslow, vice chair of psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta, who was not involved with the study told ABC News. "It's that bystander effect; nobody wants to do anything about it."

Researchers also looked at national registry data on purchased prescribed "psychoactive" drugs -- meaning anti-depressants, sleeping pills and tranquilizers -- for each subject for three to five years after they were surveyed.

They found that workplace bullying increased the number of prescriptions in both men and women who were targeted or witnessed the attack. In addition to increased prescription drug use for those who were bulled, women and men who witnessed the bullying were 53 percent and almost 200 percent more likely to be on antidepressants, tranquilizers or sleeping pills as well.

Even after taking outside factors into account -- including previous medication for mental health issues, childhood bullying, social class and weight -- there was still a strong association observed.

In an article for PsychCentral, Katherine Prudente, a licensed creative arts therapist specializing in drama therapy with the Freedom Institute Independent School Program, advocated that companies should have a response to workplace bullying just like schools do. Employees should also be educated on their options -- for example, what HR would do if they reported the bullying and what medical treatments are available through their employer -- if they experience abuse. Witnesses should also be trained to go to HR if they see bullying happening.

"As bullying becomes a national focus, I value the attention it is getting beyond the playground," Prudente wrote. "It is evident that there is a pervasive culture of bullying that, unless we address universally, will not end. We have to help and protect our children as well as model for them (even if they are not cognizant of it) how to live bully free."