The National Council of Psychotherapists
To some, the very word conjures up feelings of powerlessness, hatred, hurt and frustration. To others, it means something that only happens to the weak kids at school and is nothing to do with them.
But this happens in every place in life – at home, at school, at work.
In this I wish to look at the bullying that occurs in the workplace, some of the factors that may keep it fuelled, and some strategies that victims can implement.
Firstly, from the beginnings of recognition, when it was more generally thought of as a sign of some weakness or lack of fibre in the employee and therefore it was more often called ‘that strict boss’ and not ‘bullying’, it has now been recognised for some years that workplace bullying not only does occur, but it also can wreck lives and reduce the productiveness of the employees efforts at work. It has also been gaining increased levels of media and union attention of recent years, and employers are beginning to understand the detrimental effects to their business if they do not address this important issue.
In the health service, the unions UNISON and the RCN have readily available leaflets and booklets outlining legal rights and the effects of bullying in the workplace for nurses and support workers, and the BBC programme NEWSNIGHT is currently looking into the issue of bullying in the armed forces for a report later in the Autumn. We can also recall the case where a social worker became the first to gain monetary compensation in a court case for the stress of the workplace where the workload was excessive and managerial support non-existent. This can be seen as another form of employee bullying.
In recent years the introduction of the Human Rights Act has prompted the armed forces to review their policies and procedures in relation to how they address, and act towards, new recruits. This has lead to such changes that some are now questioning the validity of the revised training format – believing perhaps that to ask a person’s permission before touching them physically can only lead to these new forces personnel being ‘soft’ and of no use for military duties.
But that could be seen as the extreme. However, we should recognise the similarity between what the forces are now implementing and what all other employers perhaps ought to be reviewing.
Bullying can take many forms; not only the boss who appears to take some pleasure in verbally abusing his staff directly by calling them fat or useless, it can also be insipid and not spotted by the victim until a long time after the event or employment. When it is so imbedded, with its continuance unchecked, within a workplace culture, I call it corporate bullying.
Corporate bullying can take many forms – from moving someone’s chair repeatedly even when asked not to, to emptying their desk of drawing pins so they have to go to stationery yet again and fetch more for their work to continue, or always giving the rubbish graveyard shift to only certain individuals even when they ask to be included in the general rota. Such small happenings may not even register with the person as forms of bullying, but when it goes on for extended amounts of time and the boss then ridicules that person for not completing work on time, or demands they take it home and do extra hours, then it eats into the outside life of that person, and it also eats into the self-esteem too. That boss is supporting the work of the bullies, instead of looking into reasons, and supporting that person by actively seeking out those people who jeopardise another’s workload.
The effects on the person are no different, be it receiving excessive discipline from a military trainer, to finding oneself generally feeling abused and unsupported by the health service milieu – that person still feels disempowered, abused, frustrated and helpless. And the effects can last for years. For example, when staff concerns are repeatedly raised about the welfare of staff and patients, and receive nothing but cursory ‘lip service’ from the managers who are actually duty bound to act upon such concerns according to their own policies and Law. Being left within a stressful environment where staff are physically assaulted daily, leaving them with broken bones, cuts and bruises and bites, and not addressing the issues of patient overcrowding, understaffing and not giving suitable training to those few staff, is, to me, nothing short of corporate bullying in it’s meanest form.
Yet, throughout, the person can be made to feel that it is because of some failing or weakness in them that is the cause. Perhaps they find themselves referred to occupational health by their manager with the report that ‘they are under-performing’ or ‘need counselling for their problems’. The focus being placed on the person, saying that they are the one with ‘the problem’, and not on the bullying or the atmosphere that is providing fertile ground for the bully. This can again knock the person’s self-view and self-belief.
Some strategies that a person can take may include ultimately legal redress. But this path is not for everyone, as it can lead the person down the same feelings-street – they have to relive the pain of the situation during any investigation, revisiting the emotional rollercoaster as they are asked incisive questions – and incisive they are going to be, because the system being scrutinised does not wish to find itself being financially penalised, and will try to discredit the complainant in any such case. And the individuals involved will not wish to have their position of power toppled – nor will their managers wish to have such occurrences brought to light for fear of their being incisively questioned as to ‘why did you not deal with this before?’ The systems of defence come into play in full force.
The middle ground could be seen as the person seeking union or peer support - thus avoiding costly and painful legal proceedings, but not accepting the status quo as the best working practice. With peer support, situations can be reviewed in a supportive way, and with peer decisions to not accept such attitudes from that person, they can feel empowered to say ‘no’, individually and jointly, in an assertive manner.
Others may simply wish to feel better – to rid themselves of the self-doubt, the learned helplessness and the battered self-esteem. But perhaps this is not the ‘simply’ part of it; this is the most important part of it, as with regained inner strength and conviction, all the other strategies can be considered in their full merits, and the correct choice for that person can be taken. When faced with bullying, it is hard to remember your choices – when the mortgage still has to be paid, people can feel trapped into accepting whatever the boss throws at them just to keep the job, as the choice and risk of becoming unemployed leads to its own difficulties. As a client of mine once said to me “when the lake is full of sharks and they’re coming right at you, it can be hard to remember that the reason you dived in was to swim to the island in the middle of the lake in order to switch on the pump and drain that lake”.
In the matter of regaining inner abilities, therapists can be accurate guides, leading the person back to the abilities they do have, which have been smothered by their experiences of bullying and the survival techniques they have had to employ. After all, it can be hard to remember that you are highly trained and professional when all you have had for x amount of time is someone else of equal or higher standing telling you to your face that you are not, or undermining your efforts. Perhaps they forget that they hired you in the first place because you do actually have the skills and abilities to do the job!
Psychiatric Nurse and LNCP