Guest blog post by FHRD Member, Psychology in Practice (PIP)

The Silent Struggle: Unveiling the effects of workplace Bullying in the context of developmental trauma.

Workplace bullying is not just a professional challenge but has severe repercussions on the mental health of employees. Its effects are even more debilitating when there is a history of trauma. This article delves into the detrimental effects of workplace bullying on individuals with adverse childhood experiences, shedding light on the psychological implications of insidious cultures that foster fear, shame, isolation, and silence in a person’s adult life.

Let’s first deconstruct the term developmental trauma. Essentially, it’s a collection of experiences in the formative years of a person that leave a deep and enduring emotional and psychological impact (Salvatore, Staiano & Salvatore, 2023). Some examples are quick to come to mind when we think of trauma: such as, experiencing abuse, abandonment, exposure to violence, tragic and early losses amongst others. However, there are some others, such as chronic instability, rejection by a significant person such as a parent and growing up in an emotionally stale environment that are not often connoted with trauma. In fact, such experiences are considered as developmental traumas and have a significant impact on the development of a person’s brain.

Prolonged exposure to trauma during childhood can influence the development of the brain, particularly areas associated with one’s capacity to regulate emotions and stress response. These alterations are highly likely to contribute to difficulties in managing emotions and forming healthy relationships later in life. According to McCrory, Ogle, Gerin and Viding (2019), developmental trauma is associated with a lifetime increase in the risk of a mental health disorder. Furthermore, it correlates with psychopathology during adult life more significantly than when a person is exposed to a single traumatic event (Lewis et al., 2021).

Probably by now it is more evident to you how bullying at the workplace has a significant detrimental effect on employees who have a history of a trauma. This is because people with a history of developmental trauma are more likely to experience a psychological problem. Not only that, but according to Farina and Liortti (2013) and McCrory, Gerin and Viding (2017) developmental trauma tends accelerate the onset of a clinical condition with the prognosis being poorer when compared to clinical populations who have not experienced developmental trauma.

According to the latest local research conducted by bBrave (2023) bullying at the workplace tends to be of a psychological and emotional form (such as ostracism, intimidation, and excessive criticism). In 66% of cases the bullying behaviour is perpetrated by a person occupying a senior level position.

At the place of work, one often presents with a façade of a competent, confident individual. More often than not people do not talk openly about difficult childhood experiences. Therefore, you can have the most competent individuals in front of you and they may experienced relations void of consistent safe interactions in their childhood (van der Kolk, 2014) and their caregiver lacked the capacity to regulate their intense emotions (Dana, 2018; Schore, 1994).

Irrespective of whether your employee worked through issues raised by adverse childhood experience, once a person with such a developmental background is subject to bullying the likelihood of this employee re-experiencing psychological suffering is quite high. The reaction to bullying is often intense because it has its roots in earlier trauma. The matrix gets more complex when the bully is the person who is in authority or when the person in authority is aware of it but takes a passive stance and thereby enabling the bullying behaviour to recur.

The fact that most of the bullying is coming from a person trusted to be in authority to lead and guide is concerning and calls for education, accountability, and proper reporting structures. Even more importantly it is fundamental to have follow-throughs that are fair and transparent.

It is my hope that through this article, leaders become more mindful of the power they possess and the responsibility they carry. I also wish that the readers gain further insight that all of us go to work carrying a baggage. For some the baggage is heavier than others and it is important to take into consideration how the way one relates can impinge on another person. One of the most damaging aspects of workplace bullying is the creation of a culture were speaking up is discouraged. Employees who summon the courage to report bullying often find themselves dismissed, made to feel as if they are exaggerating or simply told to “shrug it off.” This fear-based culture perpetuates a toxic cycle, pushing victims into silence and isolation.

Workplace bullying fosters a culture of shame, where victims are made to feel responsible for their mistreatment. This shame, coupled with a lack of support, creates an environment where bullying can thrive unchecked. Leaders must recognize that a culture of shame is a fertile ground for bullying to take root and actively work towards dismantling it.

To combat workplace bullying, companies must implement comprehensive policies and awareness programs. Policies should not only address the consequences of bullying but also promote a culture of empathy and support. Awareness programs can help employees and leaders understand the impact of bullying on mental health, fostering a more compassionate work environment.

It is everyone’s responsibility to foster a psychologically safe work context. True change begins with leadership. A hostile environment becomes a breeding ground for old wounds to resurface, exacerbating the emotional toll on employees who are already grappling with the aftermath of a developmental trauma.

Compassionate leaders are not solely focused on meeting targets; they prioritize the well-being of their employees. A compassionate leadership approach involves having sensitivity to the suffering of others and being committed to taking action. This means actively listening to concerns, addressing issues promptly, and fostering a workplace culture where compassion and respect are paramount.

Workplace bullying, particularly for individuals with developmental trauma, is a deeply distressing experience that extends beyond the professional realm. It is a stark reminder of the crucial need for compassion in leadership. By dismantling fear-based cultures, fostering awareness, and implementing supportive policies, leaders can create workplaces that prioritize the mental health of employees. In doing so, they not only contribute to a healthier work environment but also demonstrate that compassion is an integral part of effective leadership.


Mary Rose Gatt is a warranted clinical psychologist with over 15 years’ experience working in the field of mental health. A visiting lecturer at the University of Malta within the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery and Faculty of Social Wellbeing. She is the co-founder of ‘Psychology in Practice’ (PIP), a dynamic hub for psychological expertise put into practice whose mission is to give evidence-based solutions that elevate well-being and address the unique challenges faced today. For more information email [email protected] or visit


bBrave Final Report (2023). Research study on Bullying and Ostracism at the workplace in Malta. Retrieved from:

Dana, D. (2018). The polyvagal theory in therapy. Engaging the rhythm of regulation. New York: W. W. Norton.

Farina, B. & Liotti, G. (2013). Does a dissociative psychopathological dimension exist? A review on dissociative processes and symptoms in developmental trauma spectrum disorders. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 10, 11–18.

Lewis, S. J., Koenen, K. C., Ambler, A., Arseneault, L., Caspi, A., Fisher, H. L., Moffitt, T. E., & Danese, A. (2021). Unravelling the contribution of complex trauma to psychopathology and cognitive deficits: A cohort study. British Journal of Psychiatry, 219(2), 448–455.

McCrory, E. J., Ogle, J. R., Gerin, M. I., & Viding, E. (2019). Neurocognitive adaptation and mental health vulnerability following maltreatment: The role of social functioning. Child Maltreatment, 24(4), 435–451.

Salvatore, G., Staiano, M. & Salvatore, S. Focusing the Clinical Supervision on the Therapist’s Developmental Trauma: A Single Case Study. Am J Psychoanal 83, 371–395 (2023).

Schore, A. N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.