Mobbing in
Health Care Institutions

Heinz Leymann
Annelie Gustafsson


Click here for the table of contents and publisher's description of Leymann and Gustafsson's benchmark study of suicide among Swedish nurses, as a consequence of their being mobbed at work. Published to much controversy in Swedish in 1998, this 280-page book is available in English only now, in Sue Baxter's translation.


Click here for the table of contents and publisher's description of Leymann's foundational overview of his research, Workplace Mobbing as Psychological Terrorism: How Groups Eliminate Unwanted Members. First published in Swedish in 1992, this book became available in English only in 2011, in Sue Baxter's translation.


Mainpage: Academic Mobbing

Leymann Memorial Website

Leymann's Mobbing Encyclopedia

K. Westhues Homepage




The Leymann translation project


Preface to

Heinz Leymann and Annelie Gustafsson, Why Nurses Commit Suicide: Mobbing in Health Care Institutions (translated from the Swedish by Sue Baxter; Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2014), pp. v-xii.


Heinz Leymann, Workplace Mobbing as Psychological Terrorism: How Groups Eliminate Unwanted Members (translated from the Swedish by Sue Baxter; Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2011), pp. v-xii.


Kenneth Westhues
General Editor


Mastery of a scientific field requires reading books by the founding scientists. Subsequent research may have gone beyond the founders’ ideas, superseded or even disproven some of them. In pursuit of knowledge, one rightly climbs up on the shoulders of those who have stood on the shoulders of giants. Even so, the serious student of evolution has to read Darwin, of psychoanalysis Freud and Jung, or of IQ Stern and Binet.

     For the field of workplace mobbing, all paths lead back to a single scientist. Heinz Leymann conceptualized and named this distinct form of collective aggression in 1984, when he was 52 years old, and spent the remaining fifteen years of his life researching it. By now, ten more years have passed. The number of specialists in the scientific study of mobbing is in the hundreds, if not thousands. So is the number of published books and research reports. The word mobbing, defined as the ganging up of peers and managers against a workmate, is lodged by now in dozens of languages, also in laws, policies, medical lexicons, and textbooks of human resource management. All this can be traced in one way or another to Leymann.

     That is why publication in English of his main books, which he wrote and published originally in Swedish, is so important an event. Its effect is to multiply their prospective readership a hundredfold. Whoever would understand workplace mobbing, its nature, correlates, antecedents and consequences, can now access the founding scientist’s views in the main language of the scientific world. Provided only that they know English, serious students of mobbing can henceforth read the foundational concepts and hypotheses in their original formulation ‒ so to speak, from the horse’s mouth.

     The Leymann Translation Project has required the cooperation of many organizations and individuals, among which the Edwin Mellen Press should be acknowledged here at the outset. Out of its unwavering commitment to the advancement of scholarship, above and apart from financial priorities, the press has undertaken to publish four volumes, currently planned as follows:

  • Workplace Mobbing as Psychological Terrorism, Leymann’s comprehensive introduction to and summary of the field as he had shaped it by 1992;
  • Why Nurses Commit Suicide,, co-authored with Annelie Gustafsson in 1998, a provocative exposé and analysis of nurses in Sweden who committed suicide after being mobbed at work (including, as an appendix, statistical analyses of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder among mobbing victims).
  •  When Life Strikes, Leymann’s critical examination, published in 1989, of what it means to be victimized ‒ raped, held hostage, robbed, tortured, or otherwise humiliated utterly (this book is crucial for understanding the larger theoretical frame Leymann brought to his research on mobbing); and
  • Adult Mobbing: on Mental Violence in Working Life, published in 1986, Leymann’s first book-length effort to conceptualize mobbing, distinguish it from other workplace pathologies like sexism and racism, identify the main types of it and describe ways of dealing with it. Also in this volume is No Other Way Out, Leymann’s analysis in 1988, of the diary of a mobbing target who took her own life.


Trajectory of Leymann’s Life

     A straight and narrow path through life seldom leads to invention and discovery. Heinz Leymann’s biography had plenty of jarring twists and turns. He was born in Germany to a working-class family. His father had little appreciation for Heinz’s intellectual propensities. The boy grew up amidst the turmoil and devastation of World War II, then witnessed at the age of thirteen the defeat of the Nazi dictatorship and the occupation of his homeland by its erstwhile enemies.

     Leymann moved to Sweden in 1955, at the age of 23, and worked as an interior decorator. There he married a Finnish woman and fathered two children. The couple divorced in 1974. Leymann never remarried.

     It was only after his migration to Sweden that Leymann embarked on an academic career. Taking advantage of a national program that opened university schooling to adults over the age of 25 who had four years of work experience, Leymann began taking courses in economics, sociology, and psychology/pedagogy. In 1978, at the age of 42, Leymann became the first immigrant to complete a Ph.D. under this program. His thesis was entitled, Can Working Life Be Democratized? He then worked as a researcher in the Office of Occupational Health and Safety, At the age of 50, he won appointment to the faculty of the University of Stockholm.

     Even then, Leymann continued his schooling, earning a doctorate in medical sciences, with specialization in psychiatry, in 1989, at the age of 57, from the University of Umeå, a day’s drive or overnight train journey north of Stockholm. From 1992 until his death in 1999, Leymann held a professorial chair at Umeå in the scientific study of work. He also established a private clinic for treating victims of workplace mobbing. This was at Karlskrona, on Sweden’s south coast.

     American mobbing researcher Joan Friedenberg has hypothesized that professors mobbed in universities are disproportionately from backgrounds far down the scale of income, prestige, and power. Not surprisingly, her point applies also to the scholar who established workplace mobbing as a field of scientific inquiry. In the modal case, a professor is born to affluent, university-educated parents, embarks early on a standard academic career, and carries into it a world-view shaped by privilege. Leymann had no such world-view. His belief in democracy and human equality went beyond lip-service. His commitment to dignity and fairness in the workplace was visceral. He was not a prudent, temperate professional, a Caspar Milquetoast of the ivory tower. He was outspoken, abrasive, brazen, adventurous.


Intellectual Origins

     He was also, however a scientist. His writing bespeaks not just repugnance to nastiness at work but an accepted vocation to make sense of it by disciplined application of reason to evidence, and only on this basis propose remedial and preventive measures. The beginning of scientific study of any field is separating from the blur of complex experience a definable something, giving a name to it, and then proceeding to map relations between this something and other ones. It was this all-important first step toward a science of workplace mobbing that Leymann was the first to take.

     Yet as he readily acknowledged, others had brought him to his point of departure. Chief among them was Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz, the founder of ethology, who introduced the word mobbing as a scientific term in his 1963 book, On Aggression, about the “fighting instinct” in birds and mammals that is sometimes directed against members of the same species. In writing that book, Lorenz had searched for the best word by which to describe the form of collective aggression wherein members of a species normally dispersed and unorganized “gang up,” form themselves into a cohesive group for attacking and eliminating a target. For this phenomenon Lorenz settled on the English word mobbing. By now, a substantial ethological literature has accumulated on mobbing among songbirds.

     In 1972, the German-Swedish physician and child psychologist Peter-Paul Heinemann published an article applying Lorenz’s concept of mobbing to the behavior of schoolchildren, who sometimes gang up on one of their number and torment that child even to the point of suicide. Heinemann’s article generated widespread discussion in Swedish media, and was the most proximate inspiration for Leymann’s application of Lorenz’s term to human behavior in workplaces. The title of Leymann’s first book on the subject, Adult Mobbing…, was presumably chosen to distinguish its subject matter from the child and adolescent behavior Heinemann was concerned about.

     In two additional ways, Leymann’s scholarship can be seen as following coherently from that of Lorenz. The first is its method. Lorenz came up with his ideas mainly on the basis of close, intense field observations, as opposed, for instance, to formal experiments. Similarly, Leymann produced knowledge on workplace mobbing from intense, extended interviews with mobbing targets and from systematic personal observation of their working conditions. Leymann was not opposed in principle to experimental and quantitative techniques of inquiry. Numerous of his articles report the results of survey research. His books amply demonstrate, however, that the case study was his favored method, and that most of his hypotheses were hammered out through a process of analytic induction, with each successive case used to refine and revise prior hypotheses. Leymann was also similar to Lorenz in avoiding technical jargon and in directing his work to public readerships equally as to specialists and professionals.

     Konrad Lorenz is only the most direct antecedent to the new field of study Leymann invented. Collective aggression of the many against the few, even just one, is endemic to our species and has been studied in many forms and from many angles. By the time Leymann conceptualized workplace mobbing, large bodies of research had already been amassed on scapegoating, crowd behavior, witch hunts, massacres, shunning, lynching, torture, and moral panics, as well as on major historical instances, like the Inquisition, the Terror, and the Holocaust, of an institution or collective wreaking ruin on targeted minorities. Leymann’s basic contribution was to discern in the ostensibly decent, rational workplaces of civilized societies the same horrific process that was and is widely recognized in its more barbaric, violent forms.


After Leymann’s Death

     The initial reception to Leymann’s discovery was not uniformly enthusiastic. Targets of workplace mobbing were overjoyed, of course, to learn a name for their ordeal. Ordinary workers and the public at large could recall from their own and friends’ workplace experience episodes of the process Leymann described. Workplace authorities, on the other hand, including union officials, were loath to admit that such collective villainy regularly occurs on their watch. The very concept of mobbing calls into question certain exclusionary or punitive workplace decisions; the main decision makers understandably looked askance at Leymann’s research. He was throughout his life a controversial figure in Sweden, and when he died, no academic or governmental organization leapt at the chance to memorialize and institutionalize his work.

     In 1996, at the age of 64, Leymann was diagnosed with colon cancer. Far from surrendering to the disease, he worked with more urgency. Two years earlier, he had had the good fortune to meet Sue Baxter, an American-born dentist then working in Sweden’s far north. She had come across Leymann’s work by chance while browsing in a public library. She had liked what she read and contacted the author. Leymann, whose command of English was limited, enlisted Baxter to translate his main work into her first language. She agreed.

     But time was short. In September 1998, Leymann asked Baxter to come down from the north and help him continue working even as his health declined. She did so. When he died on 26 February 1999, Baxter was one of the two women to whom he entrusted his legacy, naming them as literary executors in his will.

     The other was Noa Zanolli Davenport, a Swiss anthropologist living in Iowa but working as an international consultant in dispute resolution. Zanolli had learned of Leymann’s work and been so taken with it she visited him and Baxter in Sweden a few months before he died. With two colleagues in Iowa, Ruth Distler Schwartz and Gail Pursell Elliott, Zanolli was at work on what would become the first American book in this area, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace (Ames, IA: Civil Society Publishing). This lucid paperback was published less than six months after Leymann’s death and was dedicated to his memory.

     I, meanwhile, had been introduced to Leymann’s research by my wife Anne, a social work professor, in 1994. Bowled over by its insight and explanatory power, I made ample use of the concept of mobbing in my 1998 book, Eliminating Professors, about certain kinds of conflict in universities. More than that, I had begun to study additional mobbing cases within and outside of universities, and was forming a relationship with the Edwin Mellen Press for publication of my research. To my regret, however, I did not write to Leymann himself until about a month after he had died. Baxter read my letter, informed Zanolli of my interest, and in that way made the initial connections that have resulted in this series of books.

     Baxter, Zanolli, and I met in person at what turned out to be a seminal conference on workplace mobbing and bullying organized by Gary and Ruth Namie, US psychologists who would go on to found the Workplace Bullying Institute and to lead the movement for anti-bullying legislation in American states. The conference took place in Oakland, California, in January 2000. Baxter arrived at the hotel carrying a large box of Leymann’s articles and books. She more or less inflicted that box on me. I brought it back to Canada.

     For the next eight years, work toward English-language publication of Leymann’s books progressed very slowly. Out of respect for Leymann’s work and fidelity to his request as death approached, Baxter plodded away painstakingly at her translations, amidst many other demands on her time. She sent me the products of her labor of love but I lacked time to do much with them, preoccupied as I was with my classes and with my own research agenda on mobbing in academe, which won appreciative reactions and left me overwhelmed with inquiries and invitations from beleaguered professors far and wide, as well as from journalists, university administrators, labor unions, and researchers of many stripes.

     Then, in 2008, the University of Waterloo received a bequest in support of my research from the estate of the late Hector Hammerly, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Hammerly had used my work to make sense of the onslaught of hostility he had faced at SFU. In 2001, I had traveled to Vancouver at his request to give court testimony in his legal battle with the SFU administration. As his health spiraled downward, undoubtedly due in part to the stress of that interminable conflict, he resolved to do what he could to support sound scholarship on mobbing in academe. Hammerly died in 2006, having made clear his wish that part of his modest estate should go toward furthering my research agenda.

     The time at last was right for bringing the Leymann Translation Project to fruition. In the summer of 2008, I used Hammerly’s bequest to hire two extraordinarily talented and diligent research assistants, Hannah Masterman and Rachel Morrison. Masterman set to work editing Baxter’s translations for readability and prose style. She also designed and wrote copy for the Leymann Memorial Website, which we incorporated into the larger mobbingportal website that was Morrison’s chief responsibility. All three of us worked hard that summer, with an exhilarating sense of common purpose and shared commitment to the body of knowledge Leymann had begun.

     Masterman did most of the editing. Morrison did some of it. We then sent the edited versions of the books back to Baxter for further checking, and to ensure that nowhere had we distorted Leymann’s meaning.  In response, Baxter did a great deal more work in an effort to reconcile our priority on fluent, smooth-flowing prose with her priority on close adherence to the original Swedish text.

     Knowledge is produced in different ways. At one extreme is the large, well-funded bureaucracy staffed by careerist professionals. At the other is the solitary scholar working without institutional support. The Leymann Translation Project falls between these extremes, but closer to the latter. It has been fueled less by money than personal conviction of the importance of Leymann’s research, and of the ever expanding literature on workplace mobbing. For me, working on this project with Baxter, Zanolli, Masterman, Morrison, and the editors at Mellen Press, all of us in the shadows of Leymann and Hammerly, has been among the more satisfying and fun projects of my academic life. Thanks to all these scholars, as also, for the necessary permissions, to the publishers of the original Swedish versions and to Leymann’s co-author, Annelie Gustafsson.


Current Scholarship on Workplace Mobbing

     For bringing oneself up to date on research in this area, thereby discovering where Leymann’s foundational studies have led, the single best procedure is to put the terms “Heinz Leymann” or “workplace mobbing” in standard search engines for research databases and the web. Leymann himself recognized the power of electronic media for disseminating research results, uploading his “mobbing encyclopedia” in 1996; it remains online, and I am committed to keeping it accessible, in conjunction with the Leymann Memorial Website.