Workplace Bullying: Women More Likely to Take Sick Leaves, Men More Likely to Leave the Labor Market

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

The workplace, like almost all places where people interact, can be a petri dish of conflict.  Offensive remarks, unrealistic demands, people taking credit for others’ work, bullying—the transgressions that occur can take many forms.  They also have the potential to escalate out of control and permanently damage relationships.”  Indeed, conflict in the workplace includes bullying.  Although bullying and cyber bullying are generally viewed as a phenomenon that takes place mostly among children and adolescents, bullying frequently occurs among adults.

Image credit: KungFuPlum, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is 1) threatening, humiliating, or intimidating or, 2) causes work interference—sabotage—which prevents work from getting done or, 3) includes verbal abuse.  Workplace bullying is also defined as the repetitive and systematic engagement of interpersonally abusive behaviors that negatively affect both targeted individual and work organization.

A recent research article points out that workplace bullying affects approximately 11 percent of workers, often resulting in negative emotional/psychological, medical, and socioeconomic consequences.

Now, results from interdisciplinary research carried out by researchers at Aarhus University and at the University of Copenhagen show that men and women are similarly exposed to workplace bullying, with both genders reporting immediate negative health effects.  Men, however, are slightly more exposed to physical intimidation than women.  Interestingly, the researchers found that, in women, workplace bullying leads to a doubling of sickness absence, resulting in increased use of antidepressants and affecting women’s health negatively and for a long time. On the other hand, men are twice as likely to leave the labor market for a period of time after they have been subjected to bullying.

Tine Mundbjerg Eriksen, lead author of the study, said in a press release: “The million-dollar question is why men primarily react by leaving the workplace, while women react to bullying by taking prolonged sick leaves.  If anything, this illustrates that men and women handle bullying differently.”

Given the serious consequences of workplace bullying on physical, emotional, social, and economic well-being, it is necessary to promptly identify its signs.  In an article from last year, Joyce E. A. Russell lists some of the signs that a person is being bullied at work:

• Being excluded from team meetings or not being put on the schedule for important meetings (“Oh didn’t I put you on the boss’ schedule?”)
• Not receiving all of the necessary information to do the job effectively (“Oh, I didn’t give you that report last week… are you sure about that?”)
• Someone consistently taking credit for your work (“I created and organized the event” when it was a team project)
• Being gossiped about or someone spreading false rumors about you
• Someone sabotaging your work
• Someone belittling your work (“he/she only worked a few hours on this project”)
• Someone swearing or yelling at you in a public venue
• Scathing or inflammatory emails blaming you for a problem or issue
• Bringing up your mistakes over and over again (especially in front of others)
• Isolating you by not being accessible or limiting your access to others
• Micromanaging you and thereby showing distrust in your skills no matter how successful you have been

What can be done about workplace bullying?  The answer is to take immediate action.  However, immediate action can be taken only if everyone within an organization is trained to recognize bullying and knows how to report it.  Additional training and support should be provided on how to recover from bullying and how to prevent it.

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.


  1. I feel that it is ashamed that bullying is taken place in the workplace. I feel as if bullying is for middle school and teenage children; therefore, we should be mature as adults strive away from bullying. This article simply shows how men and women both handle situations differently. Women would rather go on a temporary leave from the job, while men would leave the job all together and find employment else where. Bullying is immature and its ashamed that women would rather waste their sick days than put up with bullying at their work environment. People should come to work and do their job and stop focusing on what other people are doing.

  2. I think that women may just leave because they are more tolerant than men in some ways. Women leave for a couple of days of a week to get their thoughts together while men are basically like “I don’t have to deal with this”. Bullying in the workplace is an issue that needs to be tackled for many reasons, the main being that work provides a substantial amount of stress for most people so adding even more can be detrimental to personal health. Women are more susceptible to these effects than men because they stay and this could even be one of the reasons that women are two times more likely than men to become depressed.

    A study across 48 countries over the gender confidence gap determined that in every country studied men overall have more self-esteem than women. So since men seem to regard themselves leave situations where they feel they are disrespected.

    To fix this, women should be taught from very young ages to respect themselves and to speak up for themselves. Assertiveness should stop being interpreted as rudeness or unpleasantness. Men with big egos are just deemed jerks but still respected while women who act the same are blacklisted in a sense.

    The gender disparity in interpretation of personality traits and actions has to be addressed.

    • “The million-dollar question is why men primarily react by leaving the workplace, while women react to bullying by taking prolonged sick leaves. If anything, this illustrates that men and women handle bullying differently.” – While bullying sucks for anyone to deal with, I think that women have an even more difficult time with it because of how we are taught to handle and react to being bullied. Men are taught and learn to face being mistreated by either striking back or walking away from the situation while women are geared to deal with it or try and resolve the issue at hand. I think that in any cases of bullying the best solution is to stand up to the issue and stick up for those who are being bullied and treated unfairly. Asking for help can already seem like a daunting task, and I think asking for help to stand up to someone else; especially when it is 1) in a workplace environment and 2) when the person that is doing the bullying is a superior it makes asking for help from others seem almost too challenging. So I have to say that I disagree that men and women react to bullying much differently in that is why (imo) both men and women respond to bullying by leaving (whether it be temporarily or permanently). However, this will not resolve the issue, and may in fact lead to another person being mistreated and bullied down the road. What can be done about work place bullying is standing up for others and asking for the help and support of others. Both men and women need to become more aware that themselves and their coworkers both face challenges in the workplace and share similar experiences in their daily lives. The goal should be to have everyone work together and support one another in efforts to create a more secure and friendly environment for everyone involved.

  3. One thing I would like to see in research is how men and women actually do respond to bullying in the workforce. Yes, this blog states that women are more likely to take sick leave and men are likely to leave the job all together, but what I want to know is how they handle it after they come back. How do the women respond and react to the same bullying after they come back from sick leave? Simply leaving for a little does not tackle the issue, but provide a short personal respite. Do they speak up, or do they just take it? Do the men immediately consider leaving the workplace all together once bullying occurs, or do they say something before they consider it? It is sad that grown adults play such immature games. It is extremely unfortunate that there are people like this that exist. I recall at my previous employment, we had a manager that is absolutely abusive and checks off many of the workplace bullying signs listed in the blog. Human resources representatives were sent in a couple of times to evaluate said manager, but they never did anything! I do not understand how there can be repeated reported issues with a particular person, and they never seem to face any consequences. HR never did anything. I think the representative’s presence was more of a symbolic occurrence to cover the company’s butt rather than an effort to actually resolve the issue. The turnover rate of the employees under her rule is so bad that they are constantly having to find and hire new qualitative assistants. I left that company two years ago, and they still have the same issue with the same manager – I know this from an old coworker who still fills in every now and then to help the company even though she does not officially work there. She has to come in because another assistant quit or they could not find someone to cover a shift. What can we do in this case when the company itself does not seem to punish those that mistreat other employees, and do not follow the professional behavioral guidelines in place? Simply leaving the company does not change anything within the company. I perceive that they will not fire her because she is a valuable asset and corporate offices do not really care about “minute” mishaps.

    • Those are some excellent questions to ask Darina, because the post leaves a lot of questions unanswered. I’m just guessing, but I’m not too confident that the women handle the issue when they return. Maybe the vacation is just a break from it all and they return to the same problems. It would be interesting to know more about these issues, because if they take these actions, is the real issue of bullying being addressed? My gut feeling is that it isn’t. It could be very well that they attempt to try to talk to a manager or someone about the bullying, but it doesn’t help. The actions they take may be in response to the issues being unresolved, but this is only logical in the case of the actions men take. To me, it makes sense to leave a workplace that isn’t hospitable rather to take a vacation and return to that same environment.

    • I completely agree with you. I think it’s completely immature when things like this occur. However, I also wonder how they tackle these situations. What could be the cause of this sick leave? I know many companies do not offer that much sick time, especially paid time off.

      We also had a similar problem at a company I worked at. The manager was known to have favorites in the company and that affected many things such as scheduling and employee of the month. Luckily she left, but I had heard it from multiple people during my training. I also remember HR not doing anything to resolve these issues.

      I know many people complained but I feel like at one point, you either just have to leave the job or deal with it. Obviously the smarter choice would be to leave, but not many people have that option especially when benefits are included within the company.

  4. @Sara

    I do believe that men and women are raised to sustain different levels of confidence, which may be part of the reason why we behave differently in the workplace. I’m not completely sure how you would combat it in childhood, aside from leading by example. Confidence is so intrinsic that I think it would be very difficult to combat. Perhaps it can be combatted by making sure you allow little girls to be curious and enable them to seek out things they enjoy. Children shouldn’t be put in a box. Much of confidence comes from knowing who you are and feeling like you have a place in the world. Raising women to sustain higher levels of confidence would be no easy task. I look forward to hearing the ideas others have.

    • I think you’re absolutely right, NaKiera. I think that allowing little girls to explore their curiosity is crucial in developing confidence at an early age. Encouraging them to embrace their interests, rather than shy away from them if they don’t fit the gender stereotypes, can impact them in such a positive way. It isn’t uncommon for girls to be pushed into “suitable” fields, so I’d love to see that change. I’d love to see adults encouraging girls to pursue STEM and other male-dominated fields.

      I think it’s also a matter of verbally expressing that it’s ok to be confident: girls are raised to be humble, which has its benefits, but it also seems to make view confidence in a negative light. It’s almost as if confidence is a taboo topic for young girls. It’s important to show girls that you can be both humble and confident!

  5. I find it sad that bullying occurs in the workplace, among many other places. But, it’s not surprising that it does. Why? As the post said if people can interact, there will be conflict. To extend upon this idea, people will continue to do things that they can get away with, simple as that. Workplace bullying can be two-fold, where employees can get away with their actions and get personal gain within the company as well. This isn’t right and certainly isn’t fair.

    My first question is, what are workplaces doing now to stop bulling in the workplace? When they see bullying do they act against it and those involved?

    I think it’s interesting that men and women in the workplace deal with bulling differently. Women take more sick leave and use antidepressants that will affect them for years to come, while men are more likely to leave the job market for some time. But why? I feel that maybe women don’t think that they could get better treatment elsewhere, so they try to resolve it on their own. But men on the other hand, will just leave the workforce. Men are choosing the lesser evil for themselves in my opinion, but why is either of these options the way out? Why can’t this bullying be resolved? The person who is the bully should be the one leaving and being affected negatively, not the employee who was just trying to do their job.

    Posts, such as this one, that bring attention to things that receive little attention are beyond necessary today. So many issues get brushed under the rug, because people feel that if we don’t speak about it, it’s must not really be an issue.

    My final question is, do you think the same people who were bullies as kids, are these bullies in the workplace? And if so, is there something we could do earlier to prevent bullying in the workplace?

    • NaKiera,
      In reading your response, I wanted to chime in on a few points. In your second question, when you ask why women stay in the workplace whereas men leave, stimulated an interesting thought process for me. I think this discrepancy largely stems from the difference in confidence among men and women. For instance, the “imposter syndrome” that Sheryl Sandberg cites in LeanIn is much more common in women. I think this is because society encourages humility, and even self-depreciation in women. Men are raised to have confidence in their skillset, often feeling as though a company is lucky to have them, whereas women tend to second guess their core competencies and feel lucky to have a job. I think this could be why women tend to stick around and attempt to “stick it out” – they do not have enough confidence in their skills to go elsewhere. They immediately take the blame and assume they have made an error that has caused their unfavorable outcome. Men, on the other hand, tend to believe that they will be able to find another job.

      Do you think men and women are raised to sustain different levels of confidence? And if so, how do you think we can combat that in early childhood? It seems like if we were able to raise women to be as confident as men, we wouldn’t have this gender discrepancy.

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