Have you ever been bullied by work colleagues?
I was bullied by several work colleagues in various mental health environments over the years. Bullied in the very place where the staff had trained to care for people! Bullied by nurses who’d studied to provide preceptorship supervision and mentorship to their fellow-nurses? To the bullies, “I wonder if you know what it feels like to be bullied?” Let me tell you here.
What is bullying?
UNISON* has defined workplace bullying as persistent offensive, intimidating, humiliating behaviour, which attempts to undermine an individual or group of employees.
Bullying at work can be broadly broken down into two different types. That which is: personal in nature – e.g. derogatory remarks about a person’s appearance or private life and work-related – e.g. questioning a person’s professional competence, allocating unachievable tasks. Many bullies will, of course, engage in both types.
If you’re being harassed or bullied by work colleagues, and their behaviours are something you don’t want, the law calls this ‘unwanted conduct’. If you wanted to complain, you would need to show that the person who harassed you meant to make you feel a certain way. Otherwise, that you felt that way even though it wasn’t their intention. This is called ‘purpose or effect’. If the person didn’t mean to make you feel this way, it also has to be ‘reasonable’ that you felt that way.
The serial bully
During a placement in the Community Mental Health Team (CMHT), I was horrified that I was being bullied by my supervisor Alan (an ex-policeman). Oh, my word, I thought I’d put all that behind me when I finally left the school gates.
This vile man would
- constantly belittle me, talk over me and question my judgement and knowledge of patients
- always tried to undermine me in front of colleagues
- ignore my input and he’d snigger at my Cockney accent if I spoke in meetings, because he knew I hated it
- deliberately leave me out of ward rounds when ‘my/our’ patients were being seen, as I had nothing useful to add.
- smirked when refusing to sign my attendance sheets saying he didn’t know what days I turned up or didn’t – only because he was late every day. I was lucky that his colleagues offered took me out on patient visits or to ward rounds in the hospital because
- he blatantly ignored my attempts to communicate with him
Still, he was furious when I said I had no option other than to speak to the CMHT Manager. His boss then had to act as mediator for the rest of my placement because Alan continued with his passive aggressive stance. How sad that ‘adults’ had to resort to this!
How it feels to be bullied
That man made my working life a misery. I felt sick with anxiety each morning; my stomach churned, my mouth was dry and my fingers were tingling. I was drowning in quicksand and I couldn’t breathe — until the kind Social worker brought me coffee and helped me calm down. The admin team were great too and they hated what was happening to me. Why didn’t anyone else say something about it, tell the manager?
Imagine waking up each morning knowing you’ll be facing yet another nightmare. Perhaps you’re afraid of spiders, and one day someone drops a box of them on your head — and they tell you they’ll do this every day! Or you don’t like lifts and you’re stuck in one all day! That’s what it feels like when you know you have to face your bully again and again. You wake up wondering what he’ll do today, what he’ll say, how much worse can he make me feel?
How bullying affected my self-esteem
My confidence was shaky, and my self-esteem plummeted even though it was someone else’s actions that contributed towards those feelings. These days, now my mental state is more stable, I wouldn’t let anyone’s else’s actions affect me like that. Now, I can attribute the cause to external factors i.e. that certain someone else, the bullies, leaving my self-esteem perfectly intact. You can also read My self-esteem building blocks on my blogging friend Ashley’s (Mental Health at Home) post, here.
However, at the time, imagine the shame of it. Being bullied at the age of thirty-six! I felt so alone and isolated, despite the good intentions of the rest of the team. While they were ever so kind to me, they didn’t help to stop it — of course, they didn’t want to be involved. But, they ought to have realised that, because no one wanted to be involved, he’d do it again and get away with it.
Still, I was determined that arse wouldn’t break me or make me leave my placement.
Power and control
Based on research into thousands of cases of bullying at work, Tim Field believed the serial bully’s focus is on power, control and subjugation of others. They usually operate by targeting one individual and bullying them relentlessly until they break down or leave. They then move on to their next victim. By the time organisations realise that there is a serial bully in their midst, considerable damage has already been done.
The policeman’s wife
My next placement was in rehab unit and on my first morning I noticed the Consultant’s leather holdall, engraved with gaudy gold initials. She was only the serial bullying policeman’s wife — and my heart sank to my stomach.
However, she was as sweet as he was sour and as warm as he was cold; she was smiley and encouraging and I liked working with her. It was during this time that she told me they were going through an acrimonious divorce. Although I had no sympathy for him, I never told her what he’d done to me.
Don’t rock the boat
It was also during that placement in the rehab unit that I came across Ricky, the Acting Manager. I told him about a particular patient, Devlin, who found it difficult to get up, showered and dressed before morning medication and breakfast. The nurses wouldn’t re-open the treatment room to give him his medication and they refused him breakfast, telling him he should get up earlier.
Ricky’s response was eyes rolling and “Tut, this is a rehab unit and patients have to learn how to get up and ready in time for medication and breakfast. That’s why they’re here.” I flippin’ knew it was rehab, and why they were there!
Nonetheless, some patients needed to be encouraged to get up on time, I suggested we get Devlin an alarm clock. More eye rolling and tutting, but Alan did open the treatment room and gave Devlin his morning medication. I made some tea and toast for Devlin, but Ricky said that I shouldn’t have and not to do it again because other patients will expect it too.
Nurse sleeping on night shift duty
I also mentioned the nurse who came in each night shift with her slippers and duvet and slept on the sofa once patients had gone to bed. I highlighted the risk to our patients, myself and colleagues as we were one member of staff down when she slept.
Huffing and puffing, he’d retort that I was there on duty too, and that I would make up the staff numbers. I argued that as students, we were there to learn by shadowing colleagues and not to be counted in the staff numbers.
“What do you want me to do?” he sighed. Ayomi, the ‘sleeper’, had been on night shifts for years, and because she had children, they cut her some slack. More likely, he didn’t want to rock the boat; he was afraid of his staff and lacked the confidence to deal with them effectively.
However, he had no problem making derisory comments about my naivety and lack of lack managerial knowledge or how to deal with staff. In truth, he was shutting me up and bullying me for speaking up about the poor practices. I lost respect for him as a Manager. Additionally I couldn’t even be bothered to tell him that I’d been a Human Resource Manager for almost twenty years.
Poor practice being ignored
I asked how long Ayo had been on permanent nights and was astonished when he told me twenty years. This lady had grandchildren by now and no one had ever questioned her working constant nights. This was against Trust Policy. Ricky refused to take action and I was berated for raising problems where there was none. They told me “Don’t even think of informing Human Resources. It would just mean more paperwork and aggravation.” – for him no doubt!
Ricky made it as difficult for me as possible. He wouldn’t allow me to raise concerns about the poor practice I witnessed on the unit. However, I was able to write about it all in my Practice Based Assessments. Additionally I reported it in the essay that followed this placement. I felt vindicated by the Uni lecturers’ comments and high marks I received for both.
It truly feels awful to be bullied. But there is always hope. Stay strong, find yourself a good support system. For me help came from colleagues who validated the experience and my feelings. You should always speak up!
In my next post, we’ll take a closer look at bullying and how to stop it!
Over to you
Yes, I’ve been updating some of my older posts. Those of you who’ve been with me for a while might recognise this earlier work. But needless to say, bullying is still around and there’s a certain stigma about being bullied when you’re an adult. What do you think? What would you do or say if you were being bullied by a colleague, and would you report them?
Related: Research shows that bullying is corrosive to mental health and well being (1). Bullying and toxic shame (2).