Our recent column on the rise in workplace bullying elicited thoughtful comments from many readers. There were three types of responses:
– First, from those who left work permanently due to bullying and were continuing to grapple with the psychological aftermath.
– Second, from those who were returning to work.
– Third, from those who found solutions to being bullied while still at work.
Each response to bullying – leaving the job site altogether, taking some time off or finding ways to cope at work can bring about different outcomes and raise particular psychological issues.
Leaving The Job Permanently
Many readers bullied at work wrote they experienced some relief by quitting altogether. Yet although not returning to the bullying situation was a welcome change, they wrote that some of their troubles continued. For some, the injustice of having been bullied with no recourse took its toll. They couldn’t help ruminating over the irony that the bully was still at work while they, the victim, were combating unpleasant memories or vivid flashbacks about a verbal or physical attack. They continually tried to understand why the bullying episodes had occurred. There was self-blame and self-criticism.
It’s a fact that staff who have been bullied may suffer depression or anxiety. Many feel a sense of impotent rage at having had their self- confidence undermined. Feelings of sadness and grief are common too. Victims lose their workplace and sense of identity derived from their work role. Having left, they now must recover from a trauma rather than thrive. That can often cause feelings of being setback and thwarted.
Indeed, it sometimes seems impossible to move on after being bullied. The scars don’t seem to heal. This can make it difficult to find another job. Fears arise about encountering a similar situation in the new job. For some, self-esteem is so low that “promoting” oneself during a job search seems overwhelming, if not impossible.
Reaching out to family and friends at this time can also be difficult. Bullied staff can begin to feel like a burden to those who have listened patiently while they struggled. In these situations, we suggest staff find a psychologist, counselor or psychiatrist to talk to about the bullying and its aftermath. By obtaining professional help, bullied personnel can begin to come to terms with bullying, rebuild and move forward. Without intervention, staff may feel frustrated due to a lack of progress or slip further away from their goal of recovering from the trauma of being bullied. Having been bullied does not have to become a permanent part of a person’s self-definition. Eventually, it can recede into a painful but distant memory for those who take the steps to deal effectively with the fallout.
Returning To Work Perils
Some readers wrote that once their leave has ended and they are feeling a bit better, they may try to return to work, hoping their newfound strength and energy will help them do so successfully. However, they may find that the battle isn’t over. While the returning individual may have changed or grown, that may not be true for the workplace. Sometimes the bully remains in the same position, or the dynamics of the office haven’t changed – people still gossip, backbite or ignore others.
In other cases, the bully has a new target and while the person returning is relieved it’s not him, the well-documented issue of “bystanders” in bullying arises. These people see bullying occurring and decide not to get involved, based on their own painful experiences.
If the organization takes bullying seriously, an effort is made to address the issue. But sadly, it can often be business as usual.
Sometimes staff who’ve taken temporary leave discover co-workers are angry with them when they return. One reader said he became an outcast after coming back to work. His fellow workers might have found their workload increased during his absence and they harboured resentment upon his return.
As well, staff who remained may feel guilty that they didn’t try to do something more to help when they had a chance. These folks may then blame the returning staff person seeing them as “weak” or somehow deserving of the treatment they received.
We recommend that returning staff consider how co-workers may feel and take time to talk to them about their return. They should convey appreciation that colleagues took on extra work while they were gone. It may seem counter-intuitive to thank others for their help when you didn’t want to leave in the first place, but acknowledging the effort they put in can ease possible tensions. When returning for a leave for any reason including physical illness for example, this may be a prudent policy.
For those bullied staff who have returned, offer to help those who assumed a greater workload. Re-establish your routine as quickly as possible to alleviate other staff’s burden. If you’ve reduced your hours, mention the change and recognize that this shift may not reduce their burden entirely. Validating other people’s experience of sometimes feeling overwhelmed can help in the long run.
The best policy is to meet with the human resources department before returning and create a re-entry plan that works for you and the organization. Be sure to discuss what kind of workplace you’ll find upon your return and the message the company is giving co-workers about your coming back. Try to anticipate superiors’ and colleagues’ reactions and develop a plan to deal with them. For example, if the bully was your superior and is still with the organization, ask that you not to report to him or her. Ask to report to another manager. Ask about any shifts in harassment policy and get briefed on the changes.
Solutions From Inside The Workplace
One reader noted that a superstar bully boss at his organization had reigned supreme for two and a half years. Things started to change when staff realized they were supporting the “superstar” by co- operating with him. This observation is in keeping with bullying research. Staff may help a bully succeed at first, by efficiently doing his or her bidding but after a while, teamwork begins to suffer. People co-operate less, and less gets done. In this case, staff consciously decided not to co-operate quite so readily, since their efforts seem only to ensure the company rewards the bully.
Staff also combat bullying by resorting to labour lawyers, the company ombudsman (if one exists) or their provincial Human Rights Commission to deal with bullying. Usually, these recourses are attempted when the company does not uphold its own anti-bullying or harassment policies. Some cases can end up in the Supreme Court of Canada.
Judging by reader response, bullying is a real concern in today’s workplaces. It takes its toll on the psychological health of employees affects the bottom line when staff productivity plummets. Quite plainly, bullying is unaffordable, both emotionally and economically.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.