A cautionary tale: the emotional impact of workplace bullying
Updated: Sep 19, 2019
I have experienced bullying in the workplace. I’m going to share my story here with you now. It’s taken a long time and a lot of courage to do this. At the time I was ashamed this happened, but now I’m grateful to be able to use my experience to make a difference to others in a similar position.
I realise now that I recognised [that person] was a bully within my first few months in the job. I was shocked at the time because it was so unexpected, but I thought I handled it well. I stood up for myself, and dealt with the situation calmly and decisively.
It was only afterwards that a jolt of emotion hit me, and reduced me swiftly to tears. However, I wasn’t prepared to be beaten by one event, so I continued working hard, taking on some exceptional challenges as the role developed. I wouldn’t say we ever had a great working relationship, but there were no further clashes for a while.
It’s difficult to explain how the bullying manifested itself later. As I grew more confident, perhaps I became more challenging – to manage, to his leadership, to him as an individual. My authority was undermined; changes made without consultation, ideas dismissed, occasional bouts of shouting in front of my team. It was a drip, drip, drip approach, cleverly disguised until I felt that I wasn’t making sense.
I guess that’s the big thing about bullying. It is a constant and persistent behaviour, and you’re right in the middle, suffering the effects before you realise what’s happening. But you already knew he was a bully, I hear you cry. Maybe, but that doesn’t mean I saw myself as someone who could be bullied. It takes a long time to admit that.
So, how do you deal with this behaviour? There are policies and procedures that tell you the process. Try and resolve it informally first, they say. So I did. I told him how he was making me feel, and that I wasn’t prepared to accept it. At his request, I offered some changes that could improve the situation (he had no suggestions). The relationship improved for about 3 weeks (I might be being generous there…) then grew considerably worse.
The stress of dealing with this affected my entire life. My performance suffered because it became all I thought about. I dreaded going to meetings, and eventually became fearful of going to work, of being in the same room as him. I would wait until other people arrived before entering meetings and avoided him as much as possible. I lost my vision, my direction, and my team, along the way. I spent hours checking emails to find the evidence I needed from the previous months (because you don’t start collecting evidence from day 1 because you don’t know straight away that you are being bullied).
I wasn’t just fighting for myself, but for others who had gone through this before me, and to stop it happening to anyone else. I had to make a difference, otherwise what had it all been for? I fought with others, shouting at people, using foul language, and throwing people out of my office. I loathed the person that I had become. My health suffered. I felt sick and would physically shake driving to work. I knew it had gone too far when I sat at my desk trying to work out if anyone would see me if I crawled under it and just hid from the world…
I was lucky in many ways. I was more than capable of understanding the policies and processes, and dragged myself through each stage, never intending to give up. I was visited by occupational health, and offered mediation services (which I refused as I did not feel anywhere near ready). I had the support of a fantastic doctor, and referrals to counselling. I was also supported by a small group of dedicated mentors who never stopped believing in me, and did their utmost to influence the thinking around bullying in the organisation, alas to no avail. They all stepped down as a result. Did I ever thank them? Probably not enough. I should do that now - it’s never too late.
Most of all, I had the unwavering support of my husband, who watched his wife become a shadow of herself, spending most of her time sobbing and hiding away.
Bullying made my world close in. There is a sense of isolation, as people move away because they are scared of losing their jobs if they stand up for you, or because you’ve pushed them away with your changing behaviour. The detrimental effect of bullying on health is huge, with anxiety, depression, digestive, and musculoskeletal issues arising as a result. I didn’t just lose my job when I walked away (which I did as a last resort, to save myself). I lost my income, security, health, confidence, self-esteem, self-belief, and a substantial period of time while I recovered. My bully? Still in his job.
For me, it was hard to let go when I didn’t feel the issue was resolved. Sometimes bullies are fired, or moved to different departments. This doesn’t remove the emotional impact of bullying that can last for years afterwards. It took me several years - yes, years - to feel able to forgive myself for my part in the process and to truly rebuild my life. Part of that life now includes dedicating myself to raising awareness and preventing bullying in the workplace.
This is one of a series of articles by Nicki Eyre about the impact of bullying. Nicki Eyre is a Transformational Coach based in Harrogate offering training and coaching support programmes for businesses and individuals. She and her team support businesses to prevent bullying, as well as individuals struggling to cope with bullying, during and after the experience. Nicki is also a speaker on the topic of workplace bullying.
Contact Nicki for a confidential discussion about your experience:
t 07921 264920