Last week I wrote about intimidation and bullying. But it is such a critical, often unresolved, issue in schools and workplaces we need to keep the discussion going.
The impact of bullying on the brain
Neuroscientists studying the impact of bullying on people’s brains have discovered emotional trauma can literally short-circuit people’s ability to recover. Emotional wounds impede a person’s health, equilibrium and even sanity. Self-harm, depression, chronic illness can all be the result. And telling a bullied person to “deal with it” or “get over it” is ridiculous and wrong. It is incumbent on colleagues, friends and family to assist with the recovery.
Bullying poses risks to health and safety at work
Australian workplace laws now recognise that bullying poses quantifiable risks to health and safety. Just as vaccines help prevent pandemics, workplaces (and any institution) must be proactive in the bully inoculation process.
Strategies to help eliminate bullying
1. Reinforce what bullying is and that there are penalties including heavy fines
Repeated physical or psychological harassment, exclusion or undermining of colleagues is bullying. Everyone must understand this. Workplaces must not only have anti-bullying policies, but equally importantly, management should model and reward better behaviours. Every person should be given a copy of company policy on what bullying constitutes. They should stamp out any signs of pack mentality.
2. Make it clear that bystander silence amounts to condoning
Every workplace should enable a process where people can report concerning behaviours, confidentially and without fear of reprisals. When bullying is reported, management must act without fear or favour and deal with the complaint as fairly, quickly and effectively as possible. There must be clear and fair procedural processes for dealing with complaints, preferably conducted by an impartial third party.
3. Set standards of constructive speech and tactful dealings
No double-standards, such as “Oh, that’s just Jason – he never holds back” (because he’s successful in sales and likes a drink or 10) or “Ellen’s being assertive” (plus holds sway over cronies and sycophants who rely on her for promotion).
4. Have a grievance process that is fair, and seen to be fair
Remember that most people who are bullied simply want it to stop and never to happen again. Victims at a minimum must feel that action was taken, there’s acknowledgment of injury done and a meaningful peace is restored.
5. Create and develop an office culture that rewards emotional intelligence
So often, the bully is playing to an “audience” or because they know few will / can stop them. Some are cowards; others glory – like lions pursuing wildebeest – in catching, bringing down and devouring their prey. Some are unconscious of their behaviour (because of entrenched childhood patterns); others are completely cognisant of what they do.
Bullying can also occur when there’s a weird quasi-moralistic “that person deserves it” or “they made their choices, now they should live with it”. When this is going on, there’s a severe empathy deficit and in places where economic inequality is already perpetrated, this provides significant ammunition to bullies.
I’ve been bullied! I don’t want any more bullying. Please help!
People who’ve experienced bullying can adopt certain steps to remedy their situation and nip trauma in the bud. They need to:
- Research the workplace you’re joining or are already employed by – does it have policies for preventing bullying? What do people say about its culture? Ask questions about strategies for preventing and also handling complaints about bullying.
- Practise positive self-talk that gives no ground to what others are saying – but equally refuses to become defensive, self-blaming or self-pitying.
- Tell the bully (as calmly as possible) that this must stop; otherwise you WILL report it and redress will be sought.
- Diarise any instances including dates, what happened and who was there. See if trusted others will back your account.
- Request that management address the problem as quickly and comprehensively as possible, with the opportunity to present accounts confidentially in a safe environment.
- Look after yourself (health and emotions) and seek external help, particularly if management is inept, unsupportive or disbelieving.
- Legal advice may be necessary but it can be expensive – first check rights and options with the Fair Work Ombudsman.
- Take leave if possible, especially if the bullying has caused stress and / or illness. Seek counselling and consider resigning if there is ongoing trauma. It’s sometimes best to physically remove oneself from the bully and a toxic work culture that endorses him/her.
Bullying causes wounds which can penetrate a person’s psyche. Healing is crucial, as are people who look after you. That is why bullying must be treated both systemically and at the individual level.
Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace. See the rest of Eve’s blogs here.