Chronic Embitterment

Some of you will have heard me speak on the topic of chronic embitterment. Embitterment is an emotion encompassing persistent feelings of being let down, insulted, being a loser and being revengeful but helpless (Linden, M 2003).  I am seeing more and more aspects of chronic embitterment surfacing in organisations. It is often played out as a reaction to bullying, harassment or breaches of equality. Embitterment usually stems from a series of events rather than a one-off isolated event as originally thought in early research.

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To cite an example of how this subject could play out, I recall being involved in an employee relations case with a large organisation some years ago.   The embittered employee lived some 150 miles from the office. He would travel down on a Monday morning and return after work on Thursday evening. He lived in a caravan during the week. He felt that he was being discriminated against because of his race. Being robbed of his sleep, he would often send emails expressing his anger and discontent to his colleagues at 2am. The CEO became exasperated as colleagues became fearful of opening their emails where ‘this nomad’ (as they called him) was the sender.

 Embitterment often flows when people feel that there has been organisational injustice. Rumination plays a key part as one thinks and plots ways to seek revenge. Co-rumination can also occur in that individuals seek out others to share their story with and who will hopefully take their side and offer moral support. The negative talk can lead to increased levels of stress and burn out.

 What else might you see?

  • The embittered individual is often distressed and rarely functions well
  • Dealing with embittered people is stressful and leaves line managers feeling drained
  • An embittered person can negatively affect workplace relationships
  • The embittered person is unlikely to keep clear boundaries

On reading this missive, it is highly likely that you could recognise colleagues at work who are displaying signs of chronic embitterment. Your Occupational Health and Employee Relations department should have this term on their radar by now. Some practical help can be offered. There was a slightly lighter side to the story about the man in the caravan and a comment made by the CEO. Ask me when I next see you (or call me) and I will tell you what it was rather than put it in print!

 For those with an interest, chronic embitterment has not yet been identified as a personality disorder as recognised by the Diagnostic and statistical Manual of Mental Orders but it has recently been mentioned in the 5th edition. Research only begun to surface in 2000.

 *Source Professor Tom Sensky – Imperial College.