When Workplace Abuse is Not Always Obvious: The Social Death Penalty

Posted on May 1, 2017  | Posted in



Much attention is given to counter bullying in schools, workplaces and social media. The abuse is not always obvious, however, and many people feel quietly victimized and strategies for workplace injustice don’t give them a voice. Some people call it the “social death penalty”. Recent studies have concluded that the issue is social ostracism and does more damage to people’s mental and physical well-being than bullying. The bottom line for employers? Higher turnover (high rates of turnover lead to higher costs related to recruiting and training new employees), it reduces performance on difficult intellectual tasks, and can also contribute to aggression and poor impulse control, all of which affects the bottom line. As a mental health advocate, my attention is drawn to mental illness stigma  as one of the reasons why someone may be ostracized. I’m concerned, too, with overall mental health because social rejection increases anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy and sadness. On one of my last jobs before retirement word got among fellow employees out that I had bipolar disorder. Several of my co-workers started treating me with a slight smirk and limited or avoided interaction with me. Ignorance, which is the basis for mental illness stigma, conditioned them to ostracize me and, to them, it was socially acceptable. I needed a friend or two on the job. People I liked and who liked me helped me look forward to going to work each day and doing my best instead of overwhelming feelings of paranoia. Ostracism is among the most devastating experiences we can endure whether on the playground or in the workplace. Not only can ostracism damage the brain; it is also more commonly directed at those who have cognitive and psychiatric challenges.  I faced both with multiple sclerosis which affected my short-term memory and bipolar disorder where occasional mood swings became obvious. Professor Sandra Robinson of the University of British Columbia concluded in her study of the issue: “We’ve been taught that ignoring someone is socially preferable — if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. But ostracism leads people to feel more helpless, like they’re not worthy of any attention at all.” British film director Derek Jarman best summarizes why every workplace should be reminded social exclusion is unacceptable: “Pain can be alleviated by morphine but the pain of social ostracism cannot be taken away.”  


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