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Workplace bullying increases risk of type 2 diabetes

Being bullied at work dramatically raises the risk of developing diabetes, according to new research.

A Danish study of around 46,000 people found those picked on by colleagues were 46 percent more likely to fall victim to the life-threatening illness.

In the US, nearly 20 percent of the workforce reports experience bullying at their places of employment. 

This is the first time the link between bullying and type 2 diabetes has been discovered, and scientists suspect the pattern could be related to emotional upset fueling comfort-eating.

Men are more vulnerable to the phenomenon than their female counterparts – 61 percent compared to 36 percent.

Being bullied at work is tied to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and men are more vulnerable than women, according to a new study

Experiencing physical violence or threats at work – usually from customers or patients rather than from colleagues – increased the risk for both sexes by 26 percent.  

Dr Naja Rod, an epidemiologist at Copenhagen University, said: ‘Being bullied is regarded as a severe social stressor that may activate the stress response and lead to a range of downstream biological processes that may contribute towards the risk of diabetes’.

The researchers suggested changes caused by stress hormones could be responsible as it could harm metabolism and increase the risk of obesity by altering hormonal regulation of appetite.

The emotional effect of workplace bullying may also trigger comfort eating, they said.

Dr Rod said: ‘It is likely both workplace bullying and violence can induce comfort eating behavior – or increase the risk of experiencing negative emotions – and further contribute to weight gain and subsequent development of type 2 diabetes.’

The Workplace Bullying Institute reported earlier this year that 44 percent of respondents to its annual survey said they thought that workplace bullying had gotten worse since last November’s election. 

The report says that bullying in the US affects an estimated 60 million people in the US. 

Dr Rod’s team said previous research has shown issues such as job insecurity and long working hours – with the consequent psychological impacts – are associated with a moderately higher risk of diabetes. 

The study found that nine percent of participants had been exposed to workplace bullying in the previous 12 months – defined as unkind or negative behavior from colleagues.

About one in every eight people had been on the receiving end of workplace violence – being the target of actions or threats – during the same period.

The 19,280 male and 26,625 female participants in Denmark, Sweden and Finland were followed for over 11 years. 

The link between workplace bullying and diabetes held even after factors such as education, being married which increases social support, alcohol consumption, mental health problems were taken into account.

Cases of type 2 diabetes were identified using national health register data with 1,223 and 930 identified respectively among those exposed to bullying or violence.

This form of the condition usually comes on in middle-age and is linked to lifestyle – such as unhealthy eating. 

Dr Rod said whilst both bullying and violence represent negative interpersonal relationships they seem to be rooted in separate contexts and are distinct social stressors.

Bullying is psychological aggression – including behaviors such as unfair criticisms, isolation and humiliating work tasks. The majority of bullies are bosses, and in the workplace it almost always comes from inside the victim’s own company, rather than from customers or other outsiders. 

In nearly three-quarters of cases documented by the study, the bullying is carried out by a manager, and 36 percent of bullying victims leave their jobs to escape the stress.

Middle-aged workers, between 40 and 59 years old, were bullied more than others.  

Violence, on the other hand, is more likely to involve physical acts such as pushing or kicking, or the threat of these, and is generally perpetrated by people from outside such as clients or patients.

Bullying and violence are distinct behaviors and consequently their induced emotions can be different, Dr Rod said.

‘There is a moderate and robust association between workplace bullying, violence and the development of type 2 diabetes,’ she said.

‘As both bullying and violence or threats of violence are common in the workplace we suggest prevention policies should be investigated as a possible means to reduce this risk.’

‘Further study of possible causal pathways, for example weight gain, negative emotions and the psychological stress response, would help to provide an understanding of the causal mechanisms and to develop cost effective interventions,’ Dr Rod added.