Frequency of bullying at work, physiological response, and mental health

J Psychosom Res. 2011 Jan;70(1):19-27. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2010.05.010. Epub 2010 Oct 25.


Objective: The present study aimed to elucidate the relationship between bullying at work and cortisol secretion. Of particular interest was to examine whether frequently and occasionally bullied persons differed from nonbullied persons.

Methods: The study included 1944 employees (1413 women and 531 men) from 55 workplaces in Denmark (16 private and 39 public workplaces). During a work day three saliva samples were collected at awakening, +30 min later, and at 20:00 hours, and analyzed for cortisol concentrations. Mental health was assessed using items on somatic, cognitive, stress, and depressive mood.

Results: Of the 1944 employees, 1.1% was frequently bullied and 7.2% occasionally bullied. Frequently bullied persons reported poorer mental health and had a 24.8% lower salivary cortisol concentration compared with the nonbullied reference group. Occasionally bullied persons had a poorer self-reported mental health, but their cortisol concentrations did not deviate from the group of nonbullied persons. The associations remained significant even after controlling for age, gender, exact time of sampling, mental health, and duration of bullying. Bullying occurred at 78% of the workplaces (43 workplaces); frequent bullying occurred at 21% of the workplaces (40%).

Conclusion: Frequent bullying was associated with lower salivary cortisol concentrations. No such association was observed for occasional bullying. Whether the generally lower secretion of cortisol among the frequently bullied persons indicate an altered physiological status remains to be evaluated in future studies. Yet, the physiological response seems to underscore the possibility that bullying indeed may have measurable physiological consequences. Hence, the physiological response supports the mental symptoms found among the frequently bullied.

MeSH terms

  • Aggression
  • Bullying / physiology*
  • Denmark
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis*
  • Male
  • Mental Health*
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Social Environment
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Workplace / psychology*
  • Workplace / statistics & numerical data


  • Hydrocortisone