'I thought coercive control only happened in relationships. Then I met my boss.'

This story discusses coercive control.

When most people think of coercive control, they’re usually thinking about romantic relationships. Described as a pattern of controlling behaviours that create an unequal power dynamic in a relationship, coercive control frequently underpins other types of domestic violence, such as physical abuse, financial abuse and verbal abuse. 

For Angela* though, her experience of coercive control came from her workplace—the public relations department at an elite girls' college. 

It started with comments about her body, as well as the bodies of other women, even school students.

"If a student won an award, I would interview, photograph, and write a story about them," Angela says. 

Watch: The other signs of workplace bullying beyond its definition. Story continues after video.

Video via ReachOut Australia.

"Every time I went out to see a student, the boss and her sidekick would ask me if they were good looking. I always refused to be drawn on this. They would then look up their photos and make an assessment on if they were attractive enough to have their photograph prominently featured or sent to external media."

Angela’s refusal to engage in the bullying meant she then became a target. 


"They would constantly belittle me and tell me I was doing a terrible job. They expected me to work long hours, sometimes up to 70 hours a week.

"When my family dog died, the first thing the sidekick said to me when I arrived at work after burying him was, 'you need to put in your leave application'."

Angela explained she’d already made up the time by working more than 70 hours the previous week, but was accused of insubordination. It was a constant cycle of intimidation and control.

"I was told I was not to wear flat shoes and was yelled at leaving work at 6:30pm to pick my brother up after I had been there for 11 hours that day."

The endless quest to earn her boss's respect, while enduring continuing putdowns, public humiliation and unreasonable expectations, left Angela’s mental health in tatters.

"When I went to my doctor to get a prescription, she told me I wasn’t the first person she had seen from my workplace for stress related reasons."

Justine* experienced a similar situation. She worked in a medical centre where she was subjected constant humiliation and belittling, often in front of colleagues and patients, leaving her scrambling to prove herself, and most importantly, keep her job. 

On one occasion, Justine was asked to take the blame for company errors. 

"(My boss) tried to coerce me into taking the blame, made horrible comments about me and my 'poor memory'."

When she emailed her boss to explain her discomfort, she was double-teamed by both her boss and her boss’ boss, who forced her to apologise for being unprofessional and passive-aggressive. 


"As I believed my job was on the line, which it seemed like it was, I caved."

But that only led to more public humiliation, centreing in on tiny errors, many of which took place in the early days of her employment. 

"The emotional abuse had escalated from humiliation to coercion and instalment of fear of getting fired."

Angela and Justine are not alone. According to Lawyers Weekly, a 2021 Global Survey by the International Labor Organisation revealed that Australia and New Zealand have the highest reported rates of workplace violence and harassment in the world. The rates are higher rates for women and diverse groups.

What is workplace coercive control?

According to clinical psychologist, Phoebe Rogers, coercive control can take place any a variety of settings, including friendships and the workplace. 

"It refers to power imbalances and feelings of being helpless and disempowered, as they are experiencing forms of emotional, verbal, mental, psychological, and even physical abuse. It also refers to feeling intimidated, and blamed, and made out to be the problem," Ms Rogers says. 

"Much like in an abusive relationship, the victim of coercive control can feel scared, helpless, and powerless, fearing negative consequences."

Workplace coercive control may include actions such as mocking staff members for their beliefs and emotional responses, a culture of ganging up, intimidation and silencing, and direct or indirect threats of job loss, withholding pay, and reducing income.


"It can also include minimising, and denying the emotional response of those who are feeling empowered and struggling; 

"I have seen male privilege and authority work to undermine a woman's confidence, and self-esteem, and prevent her career progression.

“Workplace coercive control can extend to a lack of boundaries, contacting staff outside of work hours and imposing upon their life outside of work."

If the victim tries to report the behaviour, they may be blamed and dissuaded from pushing forward, with the implied threat of job termination. 

"It also exists within certain staff members being isolated, cut off, ostracised and excluded from a team and team decisions, leaving them feeling alone, disempowered and worthless, as well as helpless."

Colleagues may also get on board, supporting and enabling the abuse. 

"I've seen this exist across all staff levels; and often staff members side with the boss, to remain protected, and side against the victim."

The impact can be devastating. 

"It has devastating impacts, of feeling anxious, emotionally unsafe, and often trapped as we depend on work for financial security," says Ms Rogers. 

"Sadly victims often question and blame themselves, and doubt their feelings and intuition. And of course, leaving can feel like defeat, rather than an act of self-respect and care." 

It can also impact future employment opportunities. 

"There can be incredible fear about this happening again in the future, manifesting in a worry that all workplaces are just as bad."


How to recognise workplace coercive control. 

Take notice of how you feel, suggests Rogers.

"Your emotional world is your biggest clue," says Rogers. "Boundary violations that start small and escalate, a culture of bullying and victim blaming, shaming emotions and sensitivity, low empathy are all signs," she explains. 

"And then your own internal anxiety, fear, worry, self-doubt, and feeling trapped and powerless."  

What can you do about it?

"You must consider your mental wellbeing and emotional safety first," says Rogers. 

If you're struggling to stand up for yourself, Rogers suggests a visit to your local GP to request a referral for counselling. 

"You also need to weigh up the pros and cons of reporting this behaviour, considering your own values and morals; and if change is unlikely.

"It's often best to leave, knowing that you deserve to have a nurturing workplace."

*names have been changed.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

Mamamia is a charity partner of RizeUp Australia, a Queensland-based organisation that helps women and families move on after the devastation of domestic violence. If you would like to support their mission to deliver life-changing and practical support to these families when they need it most, you can donate here.

Feature image: Getty.