2265 North Clybourn Avenue    Chicago, IL 60614    P: 773.296.6700     F: 773.296.1131

Health Consequences of Harassment

I’ve been tracking the health consequences of the recession among my patients. The first group of victims is obvious: those suffering the anxiety and depression that follows job loss, protracted unemployment, living on savings, cutting expenses, downsizing where they live, and, of course, losing health insurance. At the very moment these folks could benefit from some therapy, they have no insurance to pay for it.

The second group consists of the “left behind” employed. Yes they still have their jobs, but when an organization lays off employees this group is going to be working in stressful surroundings. Already carrying the unspoken burden of survivor’s guilt, they’re holding their collective breath waiting for the ax to fall on them. And with employee reduction, the survivors are almost always overworked, handling multiple tasks (often with unpaid overtime), wondering if it might not be better to chuck the whole thing and take their chances with unemployment or to change jobs and start over again.

One consequence of this workplace recession is the rising tide of employee harassment, apparently on the increase in the US, Europe, and the UK. Bosses, supervisors, and “superiors” in general are sounding meaner, probably under pressure themselves and too quick to turn their own issues into hostility and disrespect for those working under them.

I’m hearing an increasing number of tales of nastiness in the workplace, with the subtext “You should be grateful to have a job” used as an excuse for employee humiliation and harassment.

Interestingly, the concept of workplace bullying/harassment has been studied more in Europe, even Eastern Europe, than in the US. There, this issue seems less recession-based and more a consequence of the huge number of foreign “guest workers” now making the European Union their home. To come across workplace harassment questionnaires in Estonian and to find the longest Wikipedia article on the subject in German was an eye-opener for me. In the US we seem more focused on workplace sexual harassment and too often the problems of a nasty boss or a psycho supervisor are quietly swept under the table.

After observing multiple patient meltdowns in my examining room as I listen to stories of harassment, I begin to wonder if sociopaths are in charge of everything. Maybe companies unconsciously seek out the cold-bloodedness of sociopathic personalities when selecting a management team. Maybe sociopaths seek management positions to hone their lack of empathy.

Exhausted, you and your adrenals
Listening to the emotional trials of workplace harassment and the physical symptoms that follow in its wake, it didn’t surprise me to learn of studies correlating workplace harassment with adrenal exhaustion. The psychological symptoms of harassment are pretty straightforward: depression (hopelessness and helplessness), anxiety, obsessive thinking, and sleep disturbances. The main physical symptom of harassment is fatigue, but frequently also headaches, muscle aches, and digestive disturbances. This is essentially the same profile as patients suffering post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Using a variety of harassment questionnaires (here’s an example), Italian investigators measured salivary cortisol levels in workers throughout the day. This is the very same test we order at WholeHealth Chicago when evaluating patients with fatigue. Cortisol is a good way to track the exhaustion of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) stress response system that occurs when your fight-or-flight response is activated repeatedly.

The fight-or-flight system is an involuntary reflex that kicks in during stress. It’s designed to be a quick on-off response, for emergency use only during moments such as escaping a mugger or veering your car away from a potential crash.  It was never meant to remain in the perpetually “on” position.

But this is exactly what investigators found: workplace harassment leads to a burned-out HPA stress response system. When repeatedly activated, the adrenal glands become incapable of producing anything other than low (and insufficient) levels of cortisol. The main symptom of adrenal fatigue is fatigue, sometimes with an added fatigue crash in the late afternoon, when the adrenal glands, good for one day’s work (and restored during sleep), become depleted between 3 and 5 pm instead of working as they should until bedtime.

Other symptoms of adrenal fatigue include lightheadedness, depression, brain fog, salt craving, and an increased susceptibility to whatever virus happens to be making the rounds. All this is nicely explained in the accurately titled best-selling book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome, available in our apothecary.

Taking the next steps
I’m often stymied about what to suggest to victims of workplace harassment. People need jobs, especially now, but generally I ask the harassed person to view symptoms as messages from her body begging her to reconsider her current path. I ask her to meditate on the word “change.” If she can envision a different life and her body starts feeling better (muscles less tense, breathing is easier), she’s likely on to something important.

I suggest she purchase a 2012 calendar and circle a single day, the day she’ll walk out of her old job and into a new life. Whether she’s a lawyer routinely clocking a 14-hour day, a teacher fearful of turning her back on her classroom, a nurse, an office worker, or a waitperson clenching her teeth as she serves foie gras to some Wall Street honcho, she should think of that day on her calendar and put her mind into the frame of change.

In short, make a plan for getting out. Consider what life might be like with a little less money and a lot less stress. Broaden your parameters and start looking for that job.

If you believe you’re being harassed and bullied in your workplace, the very moment you say aloud, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m out of here,” your adrenals, not known for verbal communication, will breathe an audible sigh of relief.

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment

  1. melissa mcclayton says:

    Dear Dr. David,
    I ought to be horse whipped for not reading this for the past 6 years, but better late than never. You are amazing, truly. Wise, witty and wonderful! I have sent this letter to 5 people, so far, to sign on.

    Thank you!

  2. Kirsten says:

    I am a therapist who has witnessed this in clients repeatedly over the past few years. People who used to love their jobs are now having to take disability leave due to stress and depression from the new workload demands and the abusive treatment by their bosses. I read somewhere that workers in an bad work situation have worse health than the unemployed. Though I would advise anyone considering leaving to plan as much as possible since the economy will not ensure the lifestyle to which they may have become accustomed.

  3. Ann Raven says:

    Harassment can also happen in families.

  4. Gina says:

    You’re a gem. And good writer too!

  5. Bonnie says:

    I agree with you in wondering if those with narcissistic personality disorder are the ones in charge. I too have suffered adrenal insufficiency due to hostile work environment and subsequent job loss at the hands of an administration that fits this diagnosis. If a person has no empathy or ethics, they have no boundaries and will vanquish anyone who has. It seems population pressure is causing our species to loose its humanity.

  6. Tori says:

    To read this with my own eyes is so validating to me! I went through this every single day at my last job. Endless amounts of harassment, belittling, bullying, and on and on and on until I felt like a P.O.W. When I would explain that to other people, they really didn’t take me seriously. I knew I had to get out, and manifested it…they laid me off…er “eliminated my position”. So, now, I’m back in school following my dreams…and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I still suffer a bit of the PTSD from that hell hole, and remember them saying “you should be happy you still have a job”. But I’m moving on, manifesting my life as I want it.
    Thank YOU for this…it truly validates how I felt.

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, delicious and time-saving recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!


Health Tips

Dr. Edelberg’s Health Tips contain concise bits of advice, medical news, nutritional supplement and pharmaceutical updates, and stress relief ideas. With every Health Tip, you’ll also receive an easy, delicious, and healthful recipe.

When you sign up to receive Health Tips, you can look forward to Dr. Edelberg’s smart and very current observations arriving in your in-box weekly. They’re packed with helpful information and are often slightly irreverent. One of the most common responses to the tips is “I wish my doctor talked to me like this!”

Quick Connect

Get One Click Access to our


The Knowledge Base

Patient education is an integral part of our practice. Here you will find a comprehensive collection of staff articles, descriptions of therapies and nutritional supplements, information addressing your health concerns, and the latest research on nutritional supplements and alternative therapies.

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!

Upcoming Workshops

**Pain Relief with Myofascial Balls
Tuesday, October 29, 6-8pm
With Renee Zambo, C-IAYT Yoga Therapist

Course Fee: $65.00
(includes WholeHealth Chicago Myofascial Release Kit, $40 value)

Does that same spot in your neck, shoulders, back or hips seem to bother you every day? Do you have joint aches and pains in the hands and feet? Would you like to learn ways to alleviate that pain and tension?

Join WholeHealth Chicago’s Yoga and Movement Therapist Renee Zambo for an evening of muscle tension release with myofascial therapy balls.

Space is limited and registration is required.
Please register online.
Call the Center for additional information at (773) 296-6700

Recent Health Tips

  • Dandruff, Fungi, and Cancer of the Pancreas

    It’s an eye-catching title, I’ll admit. But the links are quite real and further research may guide medicine in new directions of cancer prevention and treatment. It all starts in your gut microbiome, the totality of microorganisms–bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi–present in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, mouth to anus. Until recently, researchers and clinical physicians alike paid virtually no attention to the microbiome and the Read More

  • New Hope For Sinus Sufferers

    When osteopath Dr. Rob Ivker moved to Colorado in the 1980s to set up his family practice, he had no idea that when he stepped off the plane he’d succumb to symptoms of chronic sinusitis that just wouldn’t go away: stuffy nose, thick mucus, pressure behind his cheekbones and above his eyebrows, dull aching headache, and thick goopy drainage in the back of his throat. Read More

  • Director of IV Therapies Katie McManigal, BSN, ANP

    Most people at some point in their lives have had an intravenous (IV) line. An adept nurse warned you about the tiny pinch of the needle as it was smoothly inserted and taped in place.  Then the  fluid dangling above your head slowly started making its way through a tube and into your body. IVs are all over the place in hospitals. They’re seen in Read More

October Sale – Save 20% off UltraMeal Rice

UltraMeal RICE is a tasty, non-dairy, nutritionally fortified, powdered meal replacement for those who want to support healthy body composition but may be sensitive to soy.

Click here to take advantage of this month’s promotion!