Moral Injury

Workplace Bullying as a Moral Injury Wound

Workplace abuse violates one’s moral code, resulting in an existential crisis.

Trauma burrows its way into our lives in a myriad of ways, from abuse and sickness to military conflict. The resulting suffering hurts our heads and our hearts, upending our faith in a predictable and benevolent world and leaving us without a compass to navigate home to our earlier selves. The wounds inflicted may be external, internal, or both—yet there is another type of wound, existential in nature, that transcends our body and invades our souls. We call it moral injury.

What Is Moral Injury?

Moral injury (MI) is “an act of transgression that creates dissonance and conflict because it violates assumptions and beliefs about right and wrong and personal goodness” (Litz et. al., 2016, p. 698).

Shay (1994), a psychiatrist, is credited with coining the term after encountering the bones of the phenomenon in Homer’s The Iliad and then drawing parallels between the moral injury suffered by Achilles to those inflicted on soldiers during the Vietnam War. Through his study of Homer’s work and the extended narratives of the Vietnam vets under his care, Shay (2014) delineated three essential components of MI:

  1. A betrayal of what is right
  2. By someone who holds legitimate authority
  3. In a high-stakes situation

As evidenced by Shay’s work, the vast majority of research on moral injury is situated around the battlefield. However, in recent decades, that work has been extended to the workplace.

Moral Injury at Work

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Shay’s criteria for moral injury translates well to workplace abuse scenarios in which:

  1. A star employee is targeted (a betrayal of what is right)
  2. By either her boss or other individuals with social power (by someone who holds legitimate authority)
  3. Most often resulting in job loss and/or an identity crisis (a high-stakes situation)

Moral injury on the job causes ethical employees to lose purpose, hope, and meaning in their work. Such wounds happen in what Abadal and Potts (2022) describe as “vicious” organizations in which company values dominate the webpage, such as respect, integrity, accountability, and professionalism, but shadow values direct the business. Shadow values are the “hidden curriculum” that normalizes the use of gossip, gaslighting, manipulation, sabotage, and exclusion as primary tools to complete tasks and gain power over others (Anderson, 2021).

When ethical employees devoted to an organization’s public mission unknowingly enter a vicious organization, they are forced to make the choice to either assimilate to the shadow value norms and abandon their own moral code, or call out bad behaviors. Unfortunately, the cost is high for employees who whistleblow or report toxicity, with 67 percent losing their jobs (Namie, 2021).

Unlike isolated incidents during wartime, moral injury at work typically follows an elongated cycle (Abadal and Potts, 2022; Anderson, 2021; Fleming, 2022a).

  1. An employee joins an organization that publicly matches her values and mission.
  2. The employee is repeatedly exposed to PMIE or “potentially morally injurious events,” most often from a superior such as yelling, humiliation, unreasonable workload, withdrawal of resources, taking credit for her work, and encouraging her to lie or cover up damaging information.
  3. Such behaviors are in contrast to the employee’s moral code and value system, so she attempts to professionally address the problematic behaviors, most often first with her boss and later with human resources.
  4. Following her attempts to speak up about the unethicalities, she becomes a target of retaliatory workplace bullying (gossip, gaslighting, manipulation, sabotage, and exclusion).
  5. The repeated exposure to PMIE coupled with retaliatory bullying creates an existential crisis in which trust is broken, value systems are collapsed, identity is shaken, and job security is lost, which results in moral injury. Once inflicted, the moral injury causes the employee to lose trust in people and organizations, experience feelings of sadness and shame, and suffer a crisis of identity.

Moral injury wounds are significant and long-lasting, requiring the help, when possible, of a supportive community and mental health professionals.

Healing Moral Injury Wounds

The initial wound of moral injury begins as a betrayal of the employee’s assumptive world, abandoning her in a vast landscape that lacks meaning, predictability, and an ethical code of conduct. Such cultures take away an employee’s ability to live inside her values, set goals, and have agency over her work, resulting in physical and emotional distress that includes but is not limited to high blood pressure, sleep disorders, migraines, anxiety, and depression (Nielsen & Einarsen, 2012).

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Moral injury and PTSD are often conflated, yet they have marked differences. PTSD usually occurs in response to a mortal threat, resulting in long-term feelings of fearand hopelessness. Moral injury, on the other hand, transpires when there is a violation of one’s moral values leading to extended feelings of guilt, shame, and anger. Whereas in PTSD the individual loses his sense of safety, in moral injury, the individual loses his ability to trust people and organizations to uphold a moral code of conduct (Shay, 2014).

Due to these differences, some interventions that prove successful in addressing PTSD, such as exposure therapy, are not effective in healing moral injury. However, mental health professionals, researchers, and chaplains have identified specific practices helpful for healing such wounds (Calhoun and Tedeschi, 2006; Fleming, 2022b; Janoff Bulman, 1992; Schwarz, 2012; Shay, 2014).

  1. Effective approaches begin with a self-evaluation of what values were violated. Did the organizational leadership violate an employee’s sense of integrity, service to the community, dedication to professionalism, belief in honest communication, opportunities for growth, commitment to respectful interactions, or the truthful and fair exchange of information?
  2. Next, it is helpful to identify the specific emotions that arose due to that violation. Feelings-as-information theory suggests that identifying specific emotions, instead of generalized feelings, empowers people to bring the unconscious to the surface where it can be discussed and analyzed. Such analysis empowers people to have more productive reactions to their emotions. To aid in emotional granularity, Fleming (2022b) developed the Moral Injury Experience Wheel to assist in breaking down generalized feelings like anger into more specific vocabulary to describe those feelings such as disbelief, helplessness, disappointment, mistrust, disillusionment/cynicism, contempt/disgust, resentment, vengefulness, or rage.
  3. Once the specific emotions associated with the violation are identified, it is important to consider how that violation impacted the person’s belief in herself and a meaningful world. Daily journaling, for as little as 10 minutes, is an effective tool for this type of discovery.
  4. Rituals are an integral component of the moral wound-healing process, for they create opportunities for individuals to sever emotional ties with the organization that inflicted the hurt. Rituals may come in the form of writing a letter that is ceremoniously held over a flame or taking a weekend pilgrimage on a mountain trail, signifying the taking of a new path.
  5. Lastly, it is time to find meaning in new endeavors, whether it be through advocacy, volunteer work, passion projects, or seeking out alternative employment at an organization that aligns with the individual’s personal mission and values.

In summary, workplace bullying is a type of value breach in which a person’s belief and commitment to integrity, truth, kindness, and fair play are violated by a vicious institution through the tools of gossip, gaslighting, manipulation, sabotage, and exclusion. As a result, the individual suffers innumerable physical and emotional health complications, but most tragically, may succumb to moral injury. Such wounding transcends the body, resulting in a loss of personal agency and meaning-making, which causes deep feelings of sadness and shame. Healing rests in identifying internal values, speaking about violations, and discovering new communities where the individual can do productive work in a culture that aligns with her moral code.

Dorothy Suskind, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Education and Counseling Department at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. Her research focuses on workplace bullying.

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