Have you noticed that in this modern world we never seem to be alone? Of course, we may be physically alone, but all around us we are connected to others more than ever through technology including social media and mobile messaging. Our social connection to others is a key to our positive experience of life.

However, what happens when our social connection is stripped away and we are ostracised as a result of workplace bullying incidents?

We know that workplace bullying leads to psycho-social injury. Unfortunately, the loss of social connection is one the reasons that this injury occurs. Therefore, it is vital to identify and prevent instances of social isolation and ostracism ensuring the safety of employees in our workplaces.

The evolution of social connection injury

John’s experience tells us of the consequences of social isolation and ostracism in relation to workplace bullying. As human beings, we cope better with stress, loss or trauma when we have a basic support network. In John’s case, the isolation and ostracism he was subject to resulted in psychological injury, which could have been prevented.

Yet how did John’s experience of workplace bullying result in psychological injury? For us to understand how this, we need to look back to our evolutionary development. Fundamentally, we (human beings) evolved belonging to a tribe. Those tribes that ostracised burdensome or deviating members tended to become more cohesive with increased security and opportunities. However, those that were rejected from the tribe tended to be faced with starvation and death. As a result, humans developed warning systems to detect the possibility of ostracism, to the extent that those warning systems favoured false alarms over missing the message altogether. (Field, 2010; Williams, 2007)

Therefore, at a base level, we have all been programmed to avoid being isolated or ostracised by the tribe. In the context of workplace bullying, a target’s loss of their social networks in the workplace threatens their very survival at primal level.

Ostracism – A threat to four basic needs

The above provides us with an evolutionary perspective of how social isolation and ostracism influences how we are injured by workplace bullying. Over the last five decades, but more particularly since the 1990’s, social research has indicated that we will go to great lengths to avoid being ostracised. The research also points to us being significantly injured when we are subject to ostracism.

KD Williams has provided a framework that ostracism and isolation causes pain because it threatens four basic needs as shown in the diagram below.

ostracism,workplace bullying, workplace bullying injury

When these four basic needs are threatened, we experience increased anger and sadness. However, we also experience pain at the same level of our experience of physical pain. There have been specific projects that have measured brain activity that has shown that when we are ostracised, the same areas of the brain are activated as when we are in physical pain.

As a result, the threat of ostracism involves us trying to regain our place in our modern day tribe. This may include conforming, obeying or failing to offer assistance when others are around because we are unwilling to accept the risk of behaving differently from others.

Unfortunately, if regaining our place in the tribe is unsuccessful and exposure to ostracism continues over a long period of time, then our resources for coping are depleted, and we are likely to experience alienation, depression, helplessness and worthlessness. (Williams and Nida, 2011) If we are on the receiving end of social isolation and ostracism, whether real or threatened, it is extremely painful. Where part of workplace bullying, it results in injury, or at the very least, a risk of injury.

Preventing social isolation and ostracism injury

Understanding and identifying isolation and ostracism as a result of workplace bullying is key to maintaining productive, compliant and safe workplaces. A strong positive culture is the best way to achieve this goal. However, in the absence of that, acting early to prevent injury is the next best thing.

As stated above, we know that ostracised individuals are likely to act to regain their place in the group. Research indicates that in situations of workplace bullying, targets will, in the first instance, work harder to try and stop the behaviours they are experiencing. This rarely works and transforms into actions including withdrawal of labour and intentions or actual resignation. (Lutgen-Sandvik, 2013) Acting early and working with the target to build positive momentum to stop the bullying behaviour is favourable to the negative acts that follow that cost your organisation or company time and money.

Early intervention also includes assessing for injury risk when potential bullying claims first arise. Asking specific questions to identify whether there are signs of social isolation and ostracism occurring will allow you to build a plan to prevent injury. In fact, early intervention and planning can help you prevent a costly Workcover claim.

Social isolation and ostracism from workplace bullying does result in serious psychological workplace injury. Psychological injury does come with high costs both for your organisation or company and for the person who suffers the injury. There are ways to prevent psychological injury, ensuring successful outcomes for you and all your stakeholders.

Do you need help managing or preventing workplace bullying injury? Working Well Together can tailor solutions to your needs.

Contact us now to find out how.


  • Field, Evelyn M (2010) Bully Blocking at Work, Australian Academic Press, Australia
  • Lutgen-Sandvik, Pamela (2013), Does Age Matter? Older and Younger employees’ experience of Workplace Bullying, Adult Bullying – A Nasty Piece of Work, ORCM Academic Press, USA
  • Williams, Kipling D (2007) Ostracism, The Annual Review of Psychology,
  • Williams, Kipling D & Nida, Steve A (2011) Ostracism: Consequences and Coping, Current Directions in Psychological Science