Diagnosing Retaliation: The Traumatizing and Insidious Effects of Whistleblowing

You’re a whistleblower. You haven’t been fired or demoted, but you feel pressure and awkwardness at work. How can you be sure this is actually retaliation? Even a bigger question: are you aware that these subtle forms of retaliation can lead to serious or even grave psychological problems requiring professional help?

Jackie Garrick, founder of the non-profit organization Whistleblowers of America, is working to ensure the psychological costs of reporting misconduct within a workplace are fully measured and properly remedied. Garrick is ideally suited for such a task. She herself alleged misconduct while working at the US Department of Defense on mental health and disability programs for military veterans.

In a groundbreaking study based on in-depth interviews with 72 former whistleblowers, Garrick found remarkable correlations between retaliation sufferers and people with other psychological difficulties.

“Retaliatory tactics can result in workplace traumatic stress, which causes moral injury to the whistleblower and can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse and even suicide,” Garrick wrote in the article “Whistleblower Retaliation Checklist.” The study was co-authored by another former whistleblower, Martina Buck, and published in Crisis, Stress, and Human Resilience: An International Journal.

Using the checklist, Garrick and Buck grouped retaliation into nine categories: gaslighting, mobbing, marginalization, shunning, devaluation, double-binding, blacklisting, counter-accusations, and emotional and physical violence.

Interviews with victimized employees revealed the widespread use of these vengeful tactics: 78 percent of people said they were marginalized, 76 percent faced counter-accusations, 60 percent said they were mobbed, and 60 percent were devalued, including receiving lower performance ratings and being denied promotions.

The checklist, Garrick and Buck wrote, can “give insight into the psychosocial impacts of life after whistleblowing and the need for a new mental health paradigm to emerge.” The checklist takes into consideration the symptoms of PTSD, depression and suicidal tendencies, which they said also reflect feelings of discouragement, hopelessness, unfairness and failure.

“What might seem like little things can add up. Micro-aggressions at work can add up and make people become over-sensitive, like PTSD,” Garrick told WNN. Garrick said subtle behaviors by managers and colleagues, such as eye-rolling and checking the clock and interrupting during conversations, “send messages and enable other mobbing techniques.” This can lead to stalking, defacing personal property, doxing, cyber-mobbing and violence.

“How the micro-aggressions fit together can become a systematic pattern,” Garrick said, adding that suicide is fourth most-common cause of death among working-age adults in the U.S.

Garrick and Buck say further distress is caused by drawn-out court cases and other procedures undertaken by victimized employees in hopes of getting their jobs back and being compensated for damages.

“Because these cases can take years to adjudicate and decades to recover from,” they wrote, “whistleblowers are often left confused by these complex processes and overwhelmed by the legal system while searching for vindication, institutional reform, and restorative justice.

Many people they interviewed said they did not know the status of their case or were waiting for responses. Several said they had spent thousands of dollars on attorneys, and only a few said their cases were finalized or settled. Fourteen of the 72 people interviewed said they felt hopeless, with no way to make themselves whole or to stop the wrongdoing.

“The need for justice can be viewed through the lens of trauma survivors who need some form of restoration, correction, explanation/apology, offender punishment or other forms of accountability before they can experience posttraumatic growth,” Garrick and Buck wrote.

More research is needed, they said, “so that clinicians can properly engage these patients and help them restore their sense of hope, justice, and future by dealing with their trauma and clearly identifying their pain and suffering.”

“In this way,” Garrick and Buck concluded, “whistleblowers can return to employment, find justice, continue to contribute their expertise, and remain productive members of society. Otherwise, they, and by extension their co-workers and their families, become a new class of trauma victims.”

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