4 March 2024

How to address gaslighting at work

a lady unimpressed with gaslighting in the workplace.

Gaslighting at work may sound like a rare and extreme problem, but it's more common than you think. Let’s define gaslighting, explore its impact, and delve into some strategies for creating a supportive workplace that makes abusive behaviour less likely.

What is gaslighting?

The meaning of gaslighting

Gaslighting. It's a term that's cropping up increasingly often in discussions about mental health and relationships. But it also applies to workplace dynamics and can have severe personal and professional consequences for those subjected to it. So what exactly is gaslighting, and how does it manifest at work? 

Put simply, gaslighting is a form of manipulation that can make you doubt your own feelings and perceptions. Imagine bringing up a valid concern at work, only to be met with dismissive comments like, "You're being too sensitive" or "That didn't happen the way you remember it." If interactions like this keep happening, you might start to second guess yourself, wondering whether you did misinterpret the situation after all. 

The history and context of the term "gaslighting"

While it seems like a recent concept, the term "gaslighting" has its roots in a 1938 play called Gas Light. In the play, the husband manipulates his wife into believing she's going insane by dimming the gaslights in their home and then denying anything is happening when she notices. This deliberate distortion of reality is the essence of gaslighting. 

Outside of the theatre, gaslighting is now recognised by psychologists as a form of abusive behaviour. It's not just about lying or twisting the truth, but about systematically undermining someone's sense of reality and self-worth. 

Identify gaslighting in the workplace

The signs of gaslighting at work

Gaslighting can be difficult to identify and, unfortunately, even harder to prove. As it’s often made up of a series of subtle behaviours, others in the workplace may not even notice it’s happening.  

However, there are some common signs that strongly suggest you or someone else is experiencing gaslighting at work: 

Constant questioning of your memory or perception: If your manager or colleagues frequently challenge your recollection of events or make you doubt your interpretation of a situation, it could be a sign of gaslighting. 

Minimising your feelings: Gaslighters often downplay your emotions or concerns, making you believe your feelings are invalid or unreasonable. 

Blatant lying or denying facts: Gaslighters may outright deny things they've said or done, even when presented with evidence. This can leave you feeling confused and disoriented. 

Isolation: Gaslighters may ignore you, leave you out of important meetings, or pass over you for an opportunity you’d be perfect for. They may even isolate you from colleagues or mentors who could offer support, making you more dependent on the gaslighter for validation. 

Shifting blame onto you: Gaslighters often deflect responsibility for their actions onto others, making you feel like you're always at fault, even when you've done nothing wrong. 

Reasons for gaslighting in the workplace

Research shows gaslighting has become widespread in UK workplaces, whether it's a manager who constantly belittles an employee’s achievements, or someone who repeatedly takes credit for a colleague’s ideas. 

But why does gaslighting at work happen in the first place? While it’s never justifiable, there are a variety of reasons someone might resort to this behaviour. Sometimes it's driven by a desire for control, with the gaslighter using deceit to maintain their authority. It often plays out as an abuse of power, perpetrated by leaders against their subordinates. 

At other times, it may stem from insecurity or a fear of being exposed, leading someone to deflect blame onto others. Regardless of the motives behind it, the effects of gaslighting can be devastating for those on the receiving end, and can lead to a toxic work environment that hampers innovation and productivity. 

The impact of gaslighting on personal and professional life

The effects of gaslighting on mental health

Gaslighting can take a serious toll on your mental health, leaving you feeling confused and insecure. Constantly questioning your own perceptions leads to self-doubt and dwindling self-worth. Over time, this may contribute to anxiety, depression, and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Gaslighting can also erode your trust in yourself and others, making it difficult to have healthy relationships. You may become hyper-vigilant, constantly second guessing yourself and those around you, which then leads to social withdrawal and isolation. 

The consequences of gaslighting for employee and business performance

In the workplace, the personal impact of gaslighting often translates into plummeting engagement and productivity. 

Gaslighting destroys confidence, making it difficult for someone to speak up for fear of being belittled. On top of this, they may fear that calling out the behaviour will jeopardise their career. 

This leads to a breakdown in communication, with victims’ great ideas no longer being heard and innovation and collaboration becoming impossible. That’s not to mention that declining mental health is likely to affect the quality and speed of someone’s work. 

Gaslighting affects those around the victim as well. It kills trust, creating a toxic work environment with growing conflict and low morale that spreads through teams like wildfire. 

On a broader scale, recruitment and retention could also suffer. A workplace culture that tolerates gaslighting is unlikely to attract and hold on to top talent, and it may even damage brand reputation and investment. At a time when stakeholders place so much stock in ethical standards, businesses that fail to address abusive behaviour may face serious backlash. 

A legal perspective on gaslighting in the workplace

Gaslighting as a form of workplace harassment

From a legal standpoint, gaslighting falls under the umbrella of workplace harassment, which is against the law according to the Equality Act 2010. While harassment is often associated with overt acts of discrimination or intimidation, gaslighting is a more insidious form of psychological abuse that can be equally damaging to employees. 

As an employer, you’re legally obliged to prevent harassment in the workplace and can be held liable for the actions of your employees. Failing to address gaslighting not only affects business performance and exposes employees to harm, but it also leaves you open to legal repercussions such as claims of discrimination, constructive dismissal, and breach of duty of care. 

Legal protections against gaslighting

Employees who experience gaslighting in the workplace are not without recourse. As well as being protected by the Equality Act 2010, workers can appeal to employment law, health and safety regulations, and common law duties of care. 

Employees who believe they’re experiencing gaslighting should first be able to raise their concerns internally in line with the company’s grievance procedure. As an employer, you have a legal duty to take reasonable steps against harassment in the workplace, including conducting thorough investigations into allegations and taking appropriate disciplinary measures. 

If this doesn’t resolve the issue, or if the employee is reluctant to report it internally, they may seek external support from trade unions, legal advisors, or regulatory bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). 

Addressing gaslighting at work

Ways to respond to gaslighting

As a leader or HR professional, it's important to address gaslighting head on rather than ignoring it and hoping it’ll go away. Here are some strategies you can use to prevent and respond to gaslighting behaviour: 

Encourage open communication: Create an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their concerns. Hold regular check-ins and team meetings where team members can voice their thoughts openly without being dismissed. As gaslighting thrives on fear and isolation, this can help to prevent it happening in the first place. But if it does arise, a culture of open communication makes it more likely victims will come forward. 

Educate employees: Like mould, gaslighting flourishes in dark places. Shine a light on it with training on topics like mental health, harassment and discrimination that include a specific focus on gaslighting. This will help employees recognise the signs of gaslighting, understand its impact, and even take steps to avoid using the behaviours themselves. 

Lead by example: Demonstrate respect in all of your interactions with employees. Model healthy communication, empathy and inclusion to show what you expect of your employees. 

Take complaints seriously: If complaints of gaslighting do arise, investigate them promptly and impartially. Support and protect employees who come forward with allegations, and take appropriate disciplinary action against perpetrators. 

Implement clear processes: Make it clear that gaslighting and other forms of harassment won’t be tolerated in your workplace, and share clear policies and procedures for addressing it. Employees should know how to report incidents of gaslighting and understand the consequences of engaging in it. You can make this more effective by storing all of your HR policies in an easily-accessible online platform like People First

Resources for those experiencing gaslighting

If you or your employees are experiencing gaslighting in the workplace, it's essential to seek support early on. Here are some resources that can help: 

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs): Many employers offer EAPs that provide confidential counselling and support to employees facing personal or work-related issues. Encourage employees to take advantage of these resources if they don’t feel they can come to you directly. 

Trade unions: If your workplace is unionised, employees can turn to their union representatives for advice on dealing with gaslighting. Representatives can then advocate on the employees’ behalf and help them navigate the grievance process. 

Legal advice: Employees suffering from gaslighting may wish to seek legal advice. An employment law solicitor can advise them on their rights and options for addressing the situation, including filing a formal complaint or pursuing legal action. 

Support groups and helplines: There are plenty of groups and organisations available to those experiencing workplace harassment or bullying, providing emotional as well as practical support. A quick search online should bring up those in your area that are most relevant to your situation. 

Promoting a healthy work culture

By proactively building a culture of respect and understanding, you can create a working environment that’s more hostile to abusive behaviour and less hostile to employees. 

While the strategies above will contribute to a healthier atmosphere at work, here are some ways to transform your whole company culture for the better. 

Promote diversity and inclusion: Build a more diverse workforce and create an inclusive workplace where everyone feels welcome and valued. Diversity and inclusion are popular buzzwords right now, so be careful not to simply pay them lip service. You can make a real and lasting impact by recruiting from diverse talent pools, training staff on how to be more inclusive, and creating opportunities for underrepresented groups to advance within the organisation. 

Provide mental health support: If you don’t have access to an employee assistance programme (or even if you do), consider offering internal mental health support such as an on-site counsellor or mental health first aiders who can help employees navigate challenges or signpost them to external resources. More broadly, you can boost mental health and wellbeing through things like encouraging a healthy work-life balance and offering more flexible working arrangements. 

Focus on employee experience: Happy employees are more likely to look after each other and contribute to a strong, positive work culture. Boost employee experience by taking care of team members at each stage of their journey with your company, and by continuously measuring how they feel about working for you. 

Regularly evaluate and adjust policies: Continuously review and update your organisation's policies and procedures to make sure they align with best practices and legal requirements. You could also invite feedback from employees and other stakeholders to flag areas for improvement. 

By recognising the signs of gaslighting in the workplace and taking action to address it, you can free your organisation of this destructive form of abuse and help your employees thrive. 

Jannike Ohsten, freelance content writer

Jannike Ohsten

During a decade in writing-based marketing roles, Jannike has helped businesses define their brands, build powerful online presences, and convert prospects into loyal customers. Today, she supports organisations large and small to achieve their goals with better writing, whether it’s through copywriting or coaching.

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