Today, 3 June is ‘Know Bull Day’ marking the start of Workplace Bullying Awareness Month.
Clinical Psychology Helen Perry shares her professional experience on this serious issue and how we can begin to combat it.
Matthew* a 37 year old project manager sits across from me, sleep deprived, anxious and jobless- a broken man.
Over the past few months going to work every day had become a nightmare for Matthew. He had fallen victim to workplace bullying, his new senior manager was the main offender, but the effects trickled down resulting in complete isolation from his colleagues.
Seeing no alternative but to resign, Matthew sought help from his GP who referred him to see me with reports of insomnia, anxiety and low self-esteem.
In our first session he told me how he had been struggling to sleep, was having frequent headaches, was worrying about almost everything and was having panic attacks when he went anywhere near his old work place or saw his work colleagues.
Despite wanting to move on and seek new employment, Matthew struggled to focus, sitting at his computer for hours consumed in anger, animosity and regret at this unfair situation.
Matthew worried about how he would get a fair reference from his old manager and was angry with himself for not confronting his manager or making a formal complaint. His decision to resign seemed like the only option, he was aware of another colleague who complained in a similar situation and the result was not in his favour.
Psychologists see countless men and women each year who have similar experiences. People from a wide range of settings, including government, schools, building sites, hospitals, retail, police, army and academia fall victim to work place bullying.
They tell of many kinds of bullying which occur regularly and on an ongoing basis, sometimes by an individual and sometimes by a group of people.
The bullying behaviours described include being belittled both privately and publicly, being overloaded with work, having rumours spread about them, being insulted, verbally abused, sworn at or called names, being monitored excessively (“micromanaged”), being threatened, falsely accused, criticized publicly, being retaliated against after filing a complaint or being ignored. Men are more frequently reported as the bullies though when women bully, they tend to bully other women.
Sadly, despite laws that set out to prevent this, workplace bullying is common and comes at large expense to our society, resulting in poor physical and mental health and resultant days off by the victims.
It is also true to say that most people don’t do anything about it, as reporting it often leads to an escalation of the problem rather than a resolution of the problem.
How can a Psychologist help?
A Psychologist can help to manage and treat any symptoms or the psychological impact from the situation and perhaps prevent these problems from escalating.
They can also help with problem solving: brainstorming and exploring different possible responses and action plans to address the bullying issue. A very important role of the Psychologist is to provide a safe and confidential place for a person to unburden about what they are experiencing and to provide impartial support. Some Psychologists (with particular training and experience in Organizational Psychology) specialize in issues relating to work places so could be particularly skilled in assisting you to deal with the issues related to workplace bullying.
What can I do about it?
There is no right or wrong way to respond and any action you take may help or could result in an escalation of the problem. It is often a good idea to discuss any action you might take with an impartial person before you do anything. The following is by no means advice, but merely a list of some of the sorts of things people often try with varying degrees of success:
1) Educate yourself about workplace bullying and find ideas from experts in the field (both in person or through on-line resources, books etc.) on how to manage particular situations. For example, see http://www.bigbadboss.com http://www.psychology.org.au/publications/inpsych/workplace_bullying/
http://www.beyondtheofficedoor.com for tips, articles, actions you can take, advice and other resources.
2) Keep a detailed diary of the bullying and any relevant correspondence including emails and text messages. Keep doing this even if you have already filed a complaint. Document any conversations with supervisors, human resources etc. For a template and an example of a diary, visit:
(Don’t try and secretly record conversations as this may be illegal or result in dismissal if the company has a policy about this).
3) Refer to your job description so that you know what your responsibilities are and always have phrases like, “any other duties as assigned” clarified so that you know what is expected of you and whether you are being exploited or manipulated.
4) Know what is written about you on the internet (via blogs, online forums, social media etc.) to be sure that those in your workplace are not using personal information about you to target you in some way. Google yourself and see what’s out there! Be careful what you post online about yourself and others.
5) Talk to the person bullying you if you think this might help, requesting that they cease certain behaviours (be specific about what they are doing rather than talking about “attitudes” and ask them to be specific about what behaviours you might change if they accuse you of having “attitude problems”).
Perhaps saying how stressed you are might not help, as knowing you are suffering may be their goal! Let them know that customers and sales are being affected by their behavior e.g. setting you unrealistic targets results in customers feeling they are being pressurized to buy; criticizing or ignoring you in front of a customer reduces customer’s confidence in the company etc.
Document your conversation or do it by email making sure you send the email when you are clear-headed and that you have not included inflammatory or accusatory statements. Be sure to not retaliate or spread defamatory information about the person bullying you.
6) Escalate the complaint to a supervisor or Human Resources if the bullying does not stop.
7) Consult a lawyer who specializes in employment law and is experienced in dealing with workplace bullying.
8) See your GP immediately if you start to suffer with significant stress that is affecting your physical and mental well-being. You may need some support through this experience.
* Matthew is not a real client, but represents a number of different clients and their stories as heard over the years.