Pavlenka Small is a qualified career coach and mentor providing practical and supportive guidance to people who feel dissatisfied in the workplace.
In this article Pavlenka explores the impact of bullying in the workplace on emotional wellbeing and outlines steps that can be taken to deal with the situation constructively.
Bullying in the Workplace – How Does it Affect Your Emotional Wellbeing and How Can You Gain Control?
Whilst most adults are civilised at work and make up the majority of the work population, unfortunately bullies are also part of the workplace. With increasing numbers of employees taking time off work with stress related illnesses, bullying in the workplace is frequently a contributing factor to such stress.
According to the Government website, Direct Gov, bullying at work is broadly defined as:’ when someone tries to intimidate another worker, whether privately or in front of colleagues, either face to face, via email or in writing.’
Unfortunately the workplace bully (WPB) doesn’t abide by the acceptable and normal rules of fair play, common decency and common sense and the traumatic and distressing effects on the person being bullied cannot be underestimated.
Take my client Georgia* as a prime example. At our first meeting Georgia was tearful and clearly upset and distressed by the bullying tactics of her boss at work. She had lost her appetite, felt exhausted, guilty and irritable and had developed headaches and a skin condition. Her IBS symptoms had returned and she was experiencing regular bouts of poor concentration, impaired memory and low self-esteem. She also found it hard to sleep and experienced regular nightmares (Other symptoms can include: joint and muscle pain, feeling detached, nervous, anxious, experiencing palpitations and an overwhelming sense of injustice).
Georgia was encouraged to keep a written account of how she was being bullied and although she realised her boss’s behaviour was unacceptable, she felt powerless to know how to deal with it.
As a sales assistant in a busy retail store she recounted that her boss:
- Made derogatory comments about her appearance in front of customers
- Told her what to wear, where to buy her clothes and how much make up to apply
- Expected Georgia to instantly drop what she was doing to perform unnecessary tasks (e.g. picking up a pencil at her boss’s feet)
- Wouldn’t allow her to take lunch breaks (which is breaking the law)
- Frequently changed her mind about her instructions and denied such changes when confronted.
Other examples of WPB are:
- Labelling or calling you names
- Being sarcastic towards you
- Ridiculing and hurling abuse at you
- Damaging your reputation
- Using physical violence (Georgia had a hot iron purposefully pressed on her arm)
- Instant rages over trivial matters
- Humiliating you in front of colleagues
- Constantly criticising and undervaluing your efforts
- Blaming you when things go wrong
Recognising workplace bullying is not your fault
If YOU are being bullied it is important that you recognise the bully is at fault and not you. No one deserves to be bullied and you should not believe, as is often the case, that you have caused the bullying. Bullies like to have control over the victims, either openly or (as in my case when I was bullied by my boss in a previous job) indirectly.
Bullies may feel envy, fear, inadequacy or insecurity and it was apparent in Georgia’s case that her boss felt threatened by her younger, efficient and more talented employee.
Taking steps to deal with a bully in the workplace
Firstly, assess the situation in a realistic way. If your instincts tell you that you are being treated unfairly and unreasonably, you are likely to be right. The bully will make you feel as if you are in the wrong but realise that it is the bully who has the problem and not you. Because bullies like to feel in control they will criticise and point out your weaknesses.
It is unlikely that you are the only one being bullied. Has the bully a reputation of bullying others in your workplace? Observe work colleagues’ interaction with the bully; their body language and how they respond to the bully and ask others how they are being treated by this person and how he/she makes them feel.
Don’t ignore the situation or keep giving the bully more chances to redeem themselves, thinking it will go away. It won’t. It is likely that the bully has behaved like this before.
Try responding to the bully in a different way from usual. This can be difficult but it is possible to catch your bully unawares and surprise them with an unexpected response.
Keeping a written record of your experiences
It is important to keep a written record of your experience of bullying. Write down each incident and the dates they occur; this may reveal patterns of behaviour and whilst the bully may be able to explain individual incidents, they will find it more difficult to justify a series of events.
This is exactly what Georgia did and it helped her to recognise the frequency and unacceptable nature of her boss’s behaviour.
Make sure you don’t leave your records at work and keep hard copies of any memos, letters and emails. The bully is likely to deny your accusations but written proof is valuable supporting evidence.
Being bullied provides strong grounds for lodging an official grievance procedure so treat it as an official complaint and notify your line manager or supervisor. If they are the perpetrator, go to a more senior manager, member of the HR department, works welfare department, your union representative or the occupational health professional. You can then supply the appropriate person with your written evidence.
Bullying can cause stress and is likely to compromise your efficiency in the workplace. So go to your GP who may arrange for you to have time off work.
If the outcomes prove unsatisfactory, seek legal advice.
Finally, consider leaving your current job. This is not an admission of defeat but one of self-preservation. You have been placed in a situation outside your control and it is unlikely the bully will change their behaviour. It may be beneficial to your wellbeing and personal growth to find an employer who values your skills and where your career can flourish. Don’t let your emotional wellbeing and career be destroyed by the actions of one individual.
This is exactly what Georgia did. Initially she faced up to her boss and for a short while, her boss changed her behaviour. However it wasn’t long before she returned to her previous bullying tactics. Can a leopard ever change their spots?!
Georgia now enjoys a full time position in a similar retail outlet where she is appreciated for her skills, expertise and enthusiasm and has recently been promoted.
* Name changed