Bullying happens in the boardroom, in the open-plan office and on the factory floor. It can have devastating effects on normally well-performing people in all of these situations.
I was reminded of this when reading an article by UK-based therapist Patrick Quinn in Therapy Today. He has a deep knowledge of the dynamics of bullying and other coercive situations. He points out that research in western countries suggest up to 4 per cent of employees suffer serious bullying and 9-15 per cent experience occasional bullying.
From my counselling experience I have a few suggestions to make to people being bullied in the workplace. These might help anyone being bullied in any situation. This article isn’t about legal rights or complaints procedures but about taking care of your mental and physical health.
Avoid replaying First, avoid replaying the bullying scenes in the evenings and at weekends. One of the most damaging aspects of bullying is that it can stay with you even when you’re not in the location where it takes place. As the South African activist Steve Biko said in a different context:
“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
Replaying the bullying scenes drains energy and makes you miserable. When you find yourself lost in this, bring your attention back to the conversation you’re having, the programme you’re watching, the walk you’re taking or whatever it is that you’re meant to be doing at the moment.
One trick is to silently say the word “thinking” every time the memories come back and then return your attention to what’s happening in the world outside your head. If your bully pursues you on social media, consider muting or hiding their messages so you don’t have to see them.
Second, seek help if you need it. According to Quinn, panic attacks, disturbed sleep and acute anxiety can be long-term effects of bullying in the workplace. Because they are long term, they can continue after the bullying stops. But you can help to eliminate or reduce the symptoms by going for counselling.
You'll find a list of accredited counsellors on the website of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (iacp.ie).
Third, don’t bully yourself. If you call yourself stupid or berate yourself for not having given an effective response to the bully, you’re bullying yourself. Sometimes it can help to realise that your mistreatment may have more to do with the bully than it has to do with you. Indeed, people who are bullied are often people who are very good at their job and this triggers something in the bully.
The bully may have experienced damaging behaviour or relationships in childhood or adulthood. So there is really no point in blaming yourself for the fact that you’re getting bullied.
Fourth, don’t fall into the empathy trap. Empathy – understanding how another person may be feeling – is generally a good quality. But to excuse somebody else’s mistreatment of you on the grounds that they must have suffered emotional or physical abuse themselves is to fall into a trap. As Quinn puts it, you do not owe empathy to those who have repeatedly mistreated you. That, in my opinion, is a job for their therapist, not for you.
Fifth, carefully consider whether you would be doing yourself a favour by leaving. People often stay in bullying situations on the understandable grounds that they do not see why they should let themselves be bullied out. But if the bullying is destroying your peace of mind and your health, and if it’s leading to those panic attacks and other traumatic symptoms mentioned above, then it may be necessary, as Quinn puts it, to realise that to keep going in abusive situations may only be exposing you to yet more traumatic damage. Sometimes you owe it to yourself to walk away.
You can read Patrick Quinn's article at bit.ly/patrickquinn
Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.