You can’t emotionally abuse me because I work for you


There are different forms of abuse that employees suffer at the hands of their employers. The abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual, financial, etc.

This article looks specifically at emotional abuse because of its usually unseen but extremely detrimental effects. What I do not understand is why some employers believe they have the right to emotionally abuse their staff. I just ‘can’t think far’! This article therefore, defines this form of abuse, outlines its characteristics, the shapes or forms it takes, the effects it has on the abused employees, and finally gives some advice to both employers and employees. Also, for this article, emotional abuse shall be limited to only what happens at the workplace.

Emotional abuse in the workplace is the persistent emotional maltreatment or victimization or neglect or humiliation meted out by a person or group of persons (usually in a higher position) on another person or group of persons (usually in a lower position), which can lead to psychological distress, such as depression, anxiety, and other forms of health-related problems and conditions. Unlike physical abuse which comes with physical marks and conditions to prove the occurrence of abuse, emotional abuse does not. It usually starts subtly and becomes part of everyday office life to the extent that it becomes difficult to spot. It can therefore go undetected for months and years.

In this article, an employer does not only refer to the owner or the manager or the director of a firm but also refers to staff in higher authority who can use their power to hire or fire other staff as well as use their positions to bully others into submission to their bidding. It has to be noted that for abuse to happen, there has to be an abuser (which this article is designating as the employer) and the abused or “abusee”(being the employee).

This is not to say an employee cannot emotionally abuse his employer: it happens, but not often. Hence the decision to concentrate on what usually happens, which is the employer abusing the employee. Although, the workplace is a place of professionalism and teamwork, it could also be a breeding ground for emotional abuse due to envy, insecurity, jealousy, competitiveness, etc.

Characteristics of Emotional Abuse

First of all, emotional abuse is repetitive. Whiles some other forms of abuse happen once or at a particular point in time, emotional abuse by its nature occur over and over again. Actually it is its repetitive nature that causes the emotional damage to the abuse. That is, emotional abuse results from unwanted repetitive actions. For example, a managing director who insults his subordinates does not do it one time and stop.

Chances are that he/she consistently and timely insults his/her workers. Hence, although a one-time outburst with insults may not be considered emotional abuse, its repetition will put it in this category. One other thing to note is that the aggression escalates as time goes by. Therefore, an employee who is described as incompetent consistently can easily be called a ‘fool’ and even ‘stupid’ as time goes by.

Emotional abuse also is intentional. Typically, the abuser deliberately chooses the actions or inactions which are targeted to hurt the abusee’s feelings. In terms of words, emotional abusers arm themselves with words that are targeted solely to annoy, offend, hurt, or upset the abusee. It could be less-harsher or a full-blown attack with cursing, swearing and much-harsher words done either in the public or private. Furthermore, there is a show of dominance when it comes to emotional abuse. In that, an abuser tends to show his/her superiority, control, and power over the abusee. Therefore one major indicator is a manager who likes to remind his subordinates that he is in charge. The abuser makes it clear in both words and actions that he/she is calling the shots. Therefore, as an employee, if you work under a boss who constantly wants to remind you that he/she is in charge, it shows he/she can easily emotionally abuse you. Lastly and undeniably, emotional abuse is non-physical in nature. That is, the abusee does not usually have a physical mark to prove the abuse but an emotional mark which cannot be seen physically.

Forms of Emotional Abuse

Name-calling or insults is a form of emotional abuse. This is one of the most prevalent practices in the various workplaces. It is unprofessional for a superior to call a subordinate any other name aside from the name the subordinate wishes to be called.

Name-calling can be in many forms. It can be the replacement of an employee’s name by another name or title that demeans the person. Similarly, it can be adding a title to an employee’s name peculiar to the tribe or region he or she comes from in Ghana. It can also be in the form of referring to Mr. A as Mr. B because he physically resembles Mr. B. It can even be adding an unauthorized associative name to the name of the staff. For example, in Ghana, there are some tribal names that come with their associative appellations. For example, an Akan woman by the name “Agyeiwaa” might not like being called “Kodie”, although, in the traditional sense, the latter follows the initial. Therefore the inability for the staff to ask the superior to stop calling her by another name or an associative name due to the fear of upsetting the superior amounts to emotional abuse. It is worse in circumstances when the employee has asked the superior to stop calling her by other names and the superior is refusing to stop.

Similarly, insulting a subordinate by words or actions qualifies as emotional abuse. A clear example is verbally referring to a worker as stupid or foolish or any other word that clearly insults the worker.

However, the non-verbal cues are the more dangerous ones. For example, a superior throwing a report submitted by a subordinate to the floor for the subordinate to pick it up. In such an instance, there might not be a verbal exchange of insulting words. However, the psychological damage is even greater than to have been called stupid.

Another form of abuse is denying a promotion due an employee. Employees who are properly due to be promoted but are denied are being emotionally abused.  Simply put, any form of injustice amounts to abuse. There are laid down procedures and conditions for promotion in any properly structured organization. Therefore if an employee fulfills all the requirements and the promotion is denied or given to a less-deserving employee, then there is abuse in play. Threats and intimidation is also a form of emotional abuse. Statements such as “if you do not do this you will go home”, “I will reduce your salary…”, “I will make sure you do not get any other job in this country after I fire you”, “forget about promotion as I remain your boss”, etc. When an employer makes these kinds of statements, he begins there and then to emotionally abuse the employee whether the employer meant it or not. In summary, any act, word, statement, action, or inaction of an employer that makes an employee feels pressured or tensioned, is equivalent to emotional abuse.

Being made to work over-time without a choice or compensation qualifies as emotional abuse. When employees find themselves constantly working overtime because they are instructed to, it is emotional abuse. It becomes more severe if they are also not being paid for the extra hours they put in. Additionally, publicly humiliating or yelling at an employee is emotional abuse. In Ghana, as well as in most countries around the world, for a person to legally qualify to work for someone, the person should be an adult. Therefore even if an employee is the daughter of the employer, the employer has no right to yell at her. Employees are not children and therefore no employer has the right to raise his/her voice on any employee especially in the presence of others. It is more absurd if the superior is much younger than the supervised. Although a professional working environment should be treated as such, per our culture as Ghanaians, a younger person should at least respect an older person. That does not mean the younger boss cannot ‘discipline’ the older staff. However such discipline should be per the rules and regulations of the organization which can include written suspensions and the like but not raising your voice or publicly humiliating any staff under you.

Emotional abuse can also be in the form of misplaced blame or excessive fault-finding. In a working environment, instincts and dwelling on a past mistake cannot be used to judge a current or future possible error. There should be ample evidence before a staff is blamed. It is either the employer has evidence or not. Also, the tendency of an employer to consistently find fault with an employee’s work should be non-existent because such an attitude is equal to emotional abuse. Similarly, giving an employee the silent treatment is a form of abuse. This is the situation where the abuser literally toys with the abusee’s emotions. The silent treatment involves not only the employer ignoring the employee even when the employee is trying to initiate a conversation but it also comes with hostile looks and glare. Typically, the silent treatment starts out of nowhere, leaving the abusee to guess the reason behind such a cold treatment. Undeniably, because the idea is to hurt the employee, the employer many at times seems to be enjoying the bewilderment and state of confusion that the employee will find himself/herself in.

Another form of emotional abuse that people do not really think about is excessive constant monitoring. Every employee has the right to privacy and independence. Therefore, constantly monitoring a subordinate by checking up on assignments with unnecessary phone calls during working hours, numerous emails, persistently walking up to his/her desk to demand progress report, phone calls outside office hours, all amount to emotional abuse. Unless the employee is far behind the deadline to submit an assignment, once he or she is within the allotted time frame, any action that falls within the category of constant monitoring as mentioned above is emotional abuse. Some of these actions can even be qualified as stalking which is a criminal offence. Another form is neglect and isolation. Neglecting a worker due to a committed mistake or error or personal dislike is not only unprofessional but emotional abuse as well. If everybody is expected to go or have a particular benefit or task, nobody should be isolated without proper explanation which has a root in company policy. Also worth noting is that, witnessing a violent behavior abuses the employee who saw it. That is, when an employee sees an employer kicking or throwing things around as a result of anger or disappointment, whether the property being kicked around is for the employee or not, such a violent outburst causes emotional distress.

Preventing a subordinate from seeking help is a form of abuse. Teamwork is the order of the day now. There is nothing wrong with a worker consulting a colleague for help on a particular assignment. Unless the help the other colleague is extending to the staff will make the helping colleague unable to fulfill his/her tasks, no employer has the right to prevent any subordinate from seeking help from another colleague either physically or verbally. Similarly, if an employer prevents an employee from seeking help from a professional in an attempt to solve an emotional or financial or legal or health or psychological or for any problem that affects the employee, it is tantamount to emotional abuse. For example, if an employee needs medical help and an employer prevents the employee from getting such a help, it is an emotional abuse. In another sense, because all forms of abuse are linked, if a superior after physically or sexually abusing a subordinate, threatens the abusee with job loss if he/she opens up about the abuse to anyone, the abusee does not only suffer from the physical or sexual, but emotional abuse as well.

Effects of Emotional Abuse

The first effect is decreased self-esteem. Constant feelings of self-doubt and inferiority can lead even the most optimistic person to start doubting him/herself and gradually start to lose his/her self-esteem. Consistently being drummed into your head that you are not good enough at the office will make you look down on yourself in the long run. Similarly, being emotional abused leads to a decreased self-worth. A decreased self-esteem will surely lead to a decreased self-worth because the two go hand-in-hand. That is, repetitive exposure to being abused emotionally with harsh words which are supposed to hurt you and depict your flaws causes a hypnotic effect. This leads you into believing any negative assessment being thrown in your direction. Lots of people are not able to run away from abusive situations because of this effect. Once you get there, you really need help because at this stage you accept any abusive comment as a factual analysis of yourself.

An emotionally abused employee is likely to have health problems. When emotional abuse becomes extremely rampant and the abusee reaches the point of accepting the negative verdicts about his/her capabilities and abilities, the abusee is then bound to have lots of associative health conditions. Unfortunately, unlike physical abuse, one will not be able to trace these resulting health conditions to the abuser. The trauma and constant stress endured by the emotionally abused in the medium to long term may result in health challenges such as heart conditions (which can lead to heart attack), weakened immune system, irregular menstrual cycle (for females),  unexplained body pains (such as headaches and back pain), heart palpitations, chest pains, high blood pressure, etc. Other challenges may include loss of energy, suicidal thoughts, lack of emotion or feelings, sleep disturbances (insomnia or too much sleeping), feelings of worthlessness, weight loss or gain, loss of interest in usual activities, agitation, restlessness, sadness without explanation, difficulty in taking a decision, drug misuse, negative and fearful thoughts, no interest in social interactions and activities, memory difficulties, loss of appetite, hypersensitive to both possible and impossible dangers, difficulty in concentrating, and easily irritable.

Prolonged health conditions can lead to permanent trauma. Although worst-case scenario, it is a possibility that emotional abuse can result in psychological trauma. This is because the abusee can suffer from chronic depression and anxiety. Post-traumatic stress disorder is obviously the twin brother of chronic depression and these conditions cannot be easily treated because they typically take lots of therapy sessions to deal with them. The fact is, the abused may never return to his/her original self. After abuse becomes chronic, even if the employee leaves the abusive employer and joins another firm, there will always be triggers that can easily send the abusee back to a traumatic deep pit filled with a lot of health conditions and even suicidal tendencies. Furthermore, this condition can also cause a strain in the abusee’s relationships outside the workplace as well as limiting him/her from forming new ones in the future.

Advice to the Abuser and the Abusee

To the employer, when you realize you have been exhibiting or has the tendency to exhibit any of the forms of emotional abuse as explained above, you need immediately start to become conscious of your words, actions and inactions. Even if you need professional help, seek it because if this article has opened your eyes to your abusive ways, then you need to stop abusing your staff since the damage you are doing them could be irreparable.

If your employees are seemingly incompetent and that gets you into the mood to being abusive, I suggest you do all or some of the following:  talk to them about the things they do wrong in a professional way, not in an intimidating way; you can establish an incentive scheme to reward those who prove to be invaluable; you can enroll your staff in a professional development short-course to better their skill in order to deliver as expected; and you can either do it yourself or hire an expert to do a professional assessment on their job-fit to know which task or role to assign them individually in order to get the best out of them. If none of these strategies work, the ultimate is letting the proven-incompetent staff go and hire other people who can give you the results you want.

One other advice I will give employers is for them to stop being extremely jovial and informal in the office: an office is a place of work and not a place to make friends or have fun. If you do not understand this principle, you can easily become abusive with certain seemingly playful tendencies that can make you abusive without you even knowing. Simply put, if you want your employees to be energetic, competent, and confident, STOP abusing them in any of the forms described above, because emotional abuse goes deeper and gets embedded in their psyche. As an employer, you will stand to lose more if you make your workers doubt their abilities and self-esteem.

To the employee who is being abused, refuse to be constantly referred to in negative connotations such as ‘incompetent’, ‘stupid’, or ‘fool’. If you continue to entertain such comments about yourself, you will lose your confidence and self-esteem totally.

As a matter of fact, no matter how capable you see yourself, if you are being told that you are incompetent/foolish consistently, there is a tendency that you will start to believe it, and you will really end up being incompetent/foolish because lack of confidence will lead you to make mistakes while executing your tasks.

And you would not be making these mistakes if you believed in yourself. Hence once you are making mistakes and the incompetence/foolish song is being played into your ears, you will really become incompetent/foolish.

As an employee, when you are dealing with a superior who abuses you emotionally, talk to him or her with confidence and do not ever show your dropping self-esteem. Look straight into your abusive employer’s eyes when having a working conversation with him or her. Be respectful but firm.

Develop the attitude to boldly correct an abusive boss when he/she uses a demeaning title for you and make it clear to him that you do not appreciate the insults. Do not be afraid about losing your job because none of the health implications you are prone to have if you stay in an abusive environment is worth your pay

. Also, develop the courage to communicate your dissatisfaction concerning the way you are being treated to your employer respectfully and boldly, but not rudely. If there is a higher authority above your immediate superior who is abusing you, go ahead and make a report against him/her.

Chances are, he/she will be advised to stop or you will be transferred to a different department to work with another boss. The whole point is, do not be silent and ‘try’ to contain any form of abuse. Be bold and take steps. Emotional abuse in the office definitely has a solution so do not let fear rule your life: BE BOLD!

If your hesitancy to face your abusive boss is because you believe if you do, the situation will even get worse, then maybe it is time for you to start looking for another job. I am also in Ghana and I know how hard it is to find a job. However, continuing to be in a toxic environment where you are not being appreciated and constantly emotionally abused, you will not only lose your self-worth but may even become suicidal.

Some people have committed suicide right here in Ghana because of the way their employers have treated them. Meanwhile, those bosses are still breathing because the abuse the abusee went through was not physical for the employers to be arrested. They were purely emotional.

Therefore, changing a job for a lesser pay with no abuse or even ‘going hungry’ for some time whiles searching for a job is worth more than earning much and developing high blood pressure alongside. You will surely end up spending all your savings and more on doctors if you continue to endure emotional abuse in your office. Nobody has the right to abuse you.

About Author

Emmanuel Oppong Peprah a researcher who is very passionate about employee issues. You can correspond with him through [email protected].

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