Are you the target of workplace bullying? Here's what to do …

Bullying isn’t just for kids!  Everyday here at The Psych Professionals we work with clients whom are struggling with the emotional consequences of workplace bullying and it is not pleasant!

So what is workplace bullying?

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Workplace bullying can be defined as negative interpersonal acts on the job which victims cannot cope with or control. It can take the form of social isolation, direct harassment, intimidating behaviour, work-related criticism, and physical violence.   This often leads to the victim experiencing psychological stress, intrusive and worrisome thoughts, avoidance behaviours, and hyper-arousal (i.e. being on guard the whole time).  The kind of bullying that causes the most stress generally involves outright harassment and intimidating behaviour.  Although the subtler form of bullying in which co-workers engage in social isolation of the target can be highly stressful as well.

If you’ve ever been ostracized, you know how painful it can be. You assume that the shunning is somehow your fault. It shows that you must truly have some fatal flaw if others are going to purposefully stay away from you. Perhaps the experience triggers old memories from your pre-teen or teen years, when the cool kids in the class refused to include you in their plans and activities. Unfortunately, the more you question yourself, the more you feel you deserve to be left out, and the more your doubts become self-perpetuating. Also unfortunately, social isolation may be stage 1 of what your co-workers have planned for you, and over time their behaviour becomes even more abusive. As they become emboldened by the fact that no one is stopping them, their behaviour escalates to outright ridicule, humiliation, and aggressive acts.

Even if the bullying never reaches this point, the stress you’re feeling can have a host of unhappy outcomes. Your health suffers, you feel depressed, your self-esteem takes a nose dive, and you may be so preoccupied that you can’t think clearly while at work. Instead of focusing on the tasks you need to perform, you’re wondering whether someone is poking fun at you behind your back. It’s possible that you start slipping up, and your mistakes or slower level of output leads your boss to criticize you as well. Should your co-workers see what’s happening, their behaviour will be reinforced, and the taunting will only intensify.

The second form of workplace bullying involves uncivil or rude treatment by your supervisors. They may not intentionally be trying to shame or harm you, but instead be sending comments your way that have the same net result.  Most supervisors probably don’t intentionally harass their employees; in fact, if they did, they’d be subject to rebuke from their own bosses. However, they may fail to take the time to examine their wording carefully enough to avoid getting the person upset. After the initial exposure to a harsh email, whatever the intent of the author, the result is a worker whose mental resources become drained. This can be enough to turn an average worker into one who makes mistakes or worse, develops chronic stress-related health problems.

How to deal with workplace bullying?

Step #1 is to recognize the warning signs in terms of your own stress levels. Are you feeling tired, anxious, or just generally distracted? Have you stopped looking forward to going to work or perhaps started to dread actually entering the office, store, or factory floor? Are you eating more or less, drinking more or less alcohol, getting in fights at home, and having difficulty with your sleep? These are signs that something is wrong may lead you to be able to pinpoint the cause as being due to the way co-workers or supervisors are treating you.

Step #2 is to conduct a realistic assessment of your situation. It’s quite possible that you’re right, and someone is intentionally engaging in those negative interpersonal acts. However, try to take a step back. Are those potentially-snubbing fellow workers gathering around the water cooler really talking about you or purposefully leaving you out? Maybe they just want to share some gossip among themselves. Perhaps they don’t think you’re interested in the topic of conversation whether it’s the local sports team, which brand of baby nappies to use, or the latest world news. It’s also possible that they’re trying to soothe each other’s feelings about something completely unrelated to you, not realizing that they’re doing it at your expense. That boss sending you emails littered with exclamation points and capital letters (“GET IT DONE NOW!!!”) may just have bad “nettiquete,” or maybe he or she is being terrorized by the higher-ups and doesn’t mean to humiliate or scold you. An email that may seem sarcastic to you (“I wish you’d get that done today”) only seems sarcastic when read with the wrong intonation (“I wish you’d get it done [sigh, eye roll] TODAY”). Maybe your boss was in a hurry and forgot to say “Thanks” or “Please.”

If you take these two steps and still feel bullied, option #3 is to preserve your physical and mental health by seeking individual counselling. Depending on the size and nature of your company, there may be someone you can turn to for confidential advice. This person may recommend some sort of intervention for the taunting office-mates or uncivil supervisor that could include a visit from the human resources department talking about the dangers of workplace bullying. If you are being bullied, you may be reluctant to ask for such a seemingly radical solution, but when done correctly, the intervention should seem like a generalized seminar being given to everyone in the company or division of the company.

Should the bullying be coming from office-mates, and you have good relations with your boss, then it’s just plain smart to confide in him or her. Otherwise, the stress that’s eating away at your health and productivity will seem to have no apparent cause and you really could get in trouble.

However you decide to approach the problem, it’s key that you take action to stop the bullying. While you’re about it, it’s also important to look out for your fellow co-workers who are being targeted by others, whether fellow employees or supervisors. At the very least, by reaching out a hand to an oppressed colleague, you’ll help to create a more positive and hence, productive, workplace environment for all.

If you currently are or have been the victim of workplace bullying and are still struggling with the situation and or after-effects, please feel free to make an appointment with one of our experienced Psychologists whom is here to help you regain control of the situation and look after you.

Reference:, S. K. Whitbourne