Think bullying stops at the school gates? Think again. Bullying is endemic in the world of work. It says quite something when there’s page after page of information about workplace bullying on the website for Mind, the mental health charity. This alone shows it’s not a minor issue – quite the opposite, in fact – and that its effects – stress, anxiety, ill health and mental distress – are hugely damaging.
Often the victim already feels so undermined, because of the persistent condemnation, that they lose the confidence to stand up for themselves. They end up feeling it’s their fault and that they’re not up to the job – exactly how the bully wants them to feel but, more often than not, not the case.
• More than 2 million people are bullied at work in the UK today.
• One in four people have been bullied within the last five years. New research indicates this figure may not be as high as one in two.
What is workplace bullying?
Workplace bullying is much much more than someone being bossy. Neither is it the odd angry outburst. Workplace bullying is persistent criticism and condemnation that leaves the person being bullied feeling belittled, inadequate and lacking in self-esteem. Frustratingly, bullying of this type is rarely restricted to unkind comments or open aggression. Adults are clever with their bullying tactics: they’re usually underhand and snide and attack, mentally not physically, behind closed doors.
Although most workplace bullies are in positions of authority, senior to junior bullying is not all that goes on. As the candidates are demonstrating, bullying can be peer to peer and may involve a small group colluding together to target one individual.
Bullying or just strong management?
Strong managers may come across as bossy or domineering but they will also take responsibility for their actions and its consequences in such a way that doesn’t leave others feeling uncomfortable. Strong management becomes bullying when, ultimately, destroying one individual becomes more important than actually getting the job done. According to The Andrea Adams Trust, the UK charity dedicated to tackling workplace bullying, one of the main types of bullying behaviour is ‘giving somebody tasks to do they know cannot be achieved, designed to set up somebody to fail’.
What makes a bully?
Bullies are cowards. They are often insecure people who don’t trust others and see them as a threat to their own position. Anyone who is a bully, from the playground up to the boardroom, is actually hiding their own inadequacies, while trying to make out that another person is at fault. Often the bully sees their victim as more confident, capable and successful than they are. And more often than not, the targets of bullying are indeed higher than average performers, much more efficient and better at their jobs than the bully.
Sick to the buckteeth
Workplace bullying does result in the targets taking sick leave. Bullying can provoke numerous physical health problems, from severe headaches and panic attacks to stomach problems and depression, as well as psychological distress. Mental breakdown, personality change, even suicidal thoughts are not uncommon. According to research carried out by UMIST (University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology) the effects of workplace bullying are estimated to be responsible for between one third to a half of all stress related illnesses and 18.9 million working days are lost each year as a direct result of workplace bullying.
Are you being bullied?
If you think you’re being bullied at work, ask yourself these questions:
• Does the working relationship feel different from any you’ve experienced before?
• Do you feel constantly ‘got at’?
• Is your work being criticised, even though you know your standards haven’t slipped?
• Are you starting to question whether the mistakes you’re supposed to have made really were your fault?
If you answer yes to some or all of these questions, then you’re almost certainly a target of workplace bullying.
How to tackle the problem
Children in schools are always told to tell an adult if they are being bullied. But when you’re an adult yourself it’s very hard to do this. Most of us feel we should be able to cope and are ashamed if we can’t. Speaking up takes courage because it involves taking risks. If you tell someone in a position of authority, it’s natural to fear you may be labelled a troublemaker, or worse, not believed. You may be concerned it will come down to your word against the bully’s or that the bully will hit back and make things worse.
Follow this advice for tackling the problem:
• Speak to the bully. They don’t like being confronted, particularly not by someone who is calm and civilised. Don’t do this, however, if you’re afraid you might lose control.
• Try not to become isolated – get support from friends and colleagues.
• Avoid being alone with the bully. Try to ensure others are around to witness any incidents. Ask colleagues who have witnessed anything if they’ll support you. Be aware, though, they too may be nervous of putting themselves in the firing line.
• Check to see if any of your colleagues are experiencing the same as you. Bullying at work usually affects several members of staff at any one time.
• Keep a record of incidents and any relevant documents. Note down all comments made, dates and times. Individual incidents may not seem significant but a whole list will.
• Know your job description and check whether the tasks and responsibilities you are given match it.
• Keep copies of annual appraisals or correspondence relating your ability to do your job.
• Ask advice of your personnel officer or talk to your union.
• If you feel the only way you can get back control is by resigning, make sure you tell your company why you are leaving. It may well help others in the future.
For help and support
* The Andrea Adams Trust confidential helpline – 01273 704 900 (10am – 4pm Mon to Fri) www.andreaadamstrust.org
* MindinfoLine 0845 766 0163 (9.15am – 5.15pm Mon to Fri)