Mobbing and Psychological Terror at Workplaces

Article excerpt

In recent years, the existence of a significant problem in workplaces has been documented in Sweden and other countries. It involves employees "ganging up" on a target employee and subjecting him or her to psychological harassment. This "mobbing" behavior results in severe psychological and occupational consequences for the victim. This phenomenon is described, its stages and consequences analyzed. An ongoing program of research and intervention that is currently being supported by the Swedish government is then considered.

Through their national Work Environment Acts Sweden, Finland and Norway support the right of workers to remain physically and mentally healthy at work (National Board of Occupational Safety and Health, 1980). Yet, in recent years, a work environment problem has been discovered, the existence and extent of which was not known previously.

This phenomena has been called "mobbing," "ganging up on someone" or psychic terror. It occurs as schisms, where the victim is subjected to a systematic stigmatizing through, inter alia, injustices (encroachment of a person's rights), which after a few years can mean that the person in question is unable to find employment in his/her specific trade. Those responsible for this tragic destiny can either be workmates or management.

Consider the case of Leif:

Leif worked in a large factory in Norway. His job, as arepairman, was to keep the machine park up and running. He was a skilled worker on high wages. He came originally from Denmark and his workmates often made fun of him as he spoke Norwegian with a Danish accent. This happened so often that his personal relations became seriously disturbed - he became isolated. On one occasion he became so irritated that he thumped the table with his fist and demanded an end to all further jokes about his accent. From that point, things became worse. His workmates intensified and widened the range of their "jokes." One of these was to send him to machines which didn't need repairing. In this way Leif gradually gained the reputation of being "The Mad Dane." At the beginning, many workers and foremen did not know that his sudden appearances were the results of "Jokes." His social contact network broke down, and more and more workmates joined in the hunt. Wherever he appeared, jokes and taunts flew around. His feeling of aggression grew and this drew the attention of management. They got the impression that it was Leif's fault and that he was a low-performance worker (which he gradually became). He was admonished. His anxiety increased and he developed psychosomatic problems and had to take sick leave. His employers reassigned him to less skilled work without even discussing his problems; this Leif experienced as unjust. He considered himself to be blameless. The situation gradually developed into one of serious psychosomatic disorders and longer periods of sick leave.

Leif could not keep his job, nor could he get another one, as his medical history could be only too clearly seen in his job applications. There was nowhere in society where he could turn for help. He became totally unemployable - an outcast. One of the ironies of this case is that Leif had previously been employed by a number of companies where he had performed well, had been a good workmate and had been given good references by his employers. (We have found similar cases in Sweden, Denmark, Western Germany, England, Austria, USA, and Australia.)

Although "mobbing," at the lowest denominator, is probably the result of ignorance, it may have fatal consequences. This paper gives (a) a brief overview of current Swedish and Norwegian research into this problem in ordinary work place situations (Leymann, 1986, 1987,1988), and (b) a description of an ongoing development of procedures where lawyers and psychologists cooperated to ameliorate this problem.

The Operational Definition of Mobbing

Investigations carried out notably in one of the major Swedish iron and steel plants (Leymann & Tallgen, 1989) support the following definition of mobbing:

Psychical terror or mobbing in working life means hostile and unethical communication which is directed in a systematic way by one or a number of persons mainly toward one individual. …