Work is now the new home for many Americans, so it makes sense that the workplace has its own branch of psychology and can vastly impact mental health.
Just think of the multiple positive and negative situations: sexual harassment, office romances or unrequited love, backstabbing to get to the “top,” close friendships with co-workers and cooperation with others on an important project.
Industrial-organizational psychology is “the scientific study of the workplace,” according to the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s website.
There are many areas of study in the workplace, and a slang term for one possible area of research is “office politics.”
“I usually think about it as a system characterizing a struggle over power and status in an organization, or a department within an organization, in which people attempt to bolster their own status at the expense of someone else’s,” said Beth Livingston, a human resources studies assistant professor at Cornell University, in an email.
However, she said there are different parts of overall “office politics” that are studied, like relationships and interactions that include bullying and harassment.
She said that studies on harassment in the workplace show “potentially harmful psychological effects,” including the possibility of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When we are faced with little to no support from coworkers and from our boss, our stress and anxiety levels increase, our health and performance suffer, and we are more likely to quit our jobs,” Livingston said.
She said that there is competition and aggression in the workplace, but that aggression is generally indirect.
“Indirect bullying in which your reputation or qualifications are undermined behind your back can be just as harmful to your mental health as someone undermining you to your face,” Livingston said. “Research has demonstrated that work bullying increases physiological stress, anxiety and depression.”
She said that work is a major part of everyone’s lives and it’s difficult to have a work-life balance.
“Whenever individuals experience stress and strain at work, it can quite easily spill over into other parts of their lives,” Livingston said. “We rarely, if ever, are able to completely segment our work lives and our non-work lives.”
Just like in regular society, the workplace has its own community that workers have to deal with, and some people are affected by office politics more than others. She said that some can separate work and outside life better, they don’t get easily upset over conflicts and enjoy competition.
“We can prioritize our reactions or 'pick our battles',” Livingston said. “I think ignoring the drama is more often than not good advice.”
However, she said there will generally always be drama in the workplace.
“You might find it helpful to confront indirect bully-ers…in a calm manner,” Livingston said. “I’ve found that many conflicts between peers and coworkers are the result of miscommunications, and a calm confrontation might just clear most of that up.”
Workers can also document cases, play along or try to “change the culture from within,” which can be a difficult feat with larger workplaces.
She said that when it comes to relationships at work, women are different from men in most cases.
“Women tend to have deeper and more complex relationships with one another at work,” Livingston said. “These deep relationships account for the fact that women are seen as more social and more supportive than men are. But this also means there are more opportunities for conflict.”
For women, these types of conflict include backstabbing and indirect aggression.
She doesn’t think most people can separate work from non-work life completely, but it can seem attractive at times.
“I suggest an honest and upfront approach to conflict, drama and competition,” Livingston said. “This isn’t a cure-all, of course, but whenever the quality of relationships matter, you have to keep them healthy.”
Mindy Bergman, a psychology associate professor at Texas A&M University, said in an e-mail that because of the amount of time spent at work, it can impact mental and physical health.
“It is clear that work stress is very harmful to mental health,” Bergman said. “Work stress, and all stressors, hurts us by draining our mental and physical resources.”
Kathleen Rospenda, a psychology associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said in an email that the economy isn’t helping.
“Many people are living paycheck to paycheck, and absolutely cannot afford to lose their job, no matter how horribly they may be getting treated, or how stressful the job is,” Rospenda said. “When people feel they have no choice but to endure terrible work situations, they can feel helpless and hopeless, and become depressed.”
Bergman said that sometimes conflict in the workplace can be beneficial.
“Conflicts are generally a good thing, because differing opinions help workers come to better solutions overall by encouraging them to look at problems from different perspectives,” Bergman said.
Rospenda said in some cases it can hurt employees to completely stay out of office politics.
“By staying out of it and not aligning themselves with those who have power, the employee may actually be hurting their own chances for advancement,” Rospenda said.
She said employees should still “do the best job they can and try to stay out of the office politics that directly or indirectly cause harm to others.”
Overall, the concept of “office politics” is tricky because it involves so many elements. The workplace is never simple and each workplace can be approached differently because of the unique structure involved.
“Office politics might be particularly challenging because it undermines social relationships,” Bergman said. “We know that social support is an important factor in reducing the effects of stress on mental and physical well-being.”
“So when social support is turned into social drama, as is the case in office politics, the very thing that is supposed to be buffering the effects of stress on your well-being becomes the stressor,” Bergman said.