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Anxiety, panic attacks and depression: People bullied in work more likely to leave than the bully

The targeted person is usually high performing and often a threat to the bully themselves, writes Stephanie Regan.

Stephanie Regan Clinical Psychotherapist

BULLYING AND HARASSMENT have come centre stage in this last six to twelve months and we need to be proactive not reactive in our workplaces.

We have listened to the detailed stories nationally and internationally of talented people who have left their work because of behaviours that have eroded their health and lives. Those stories were from those who felt afraid to speak up, who never thought they would be believed – and when they did speak out, many more followed.

Why? The answer is simple; because the chance of being believed was raised and the fear lowered. Does this only happen in Hollywood, or is each of our workplaces a small Hollywood of its own?

A national survey in 2007 showed that of 3,500 respondents, 20% had taken sick leave as a result of bullying.

Corporate Irish CEOs and human resource managers look to the Health and Safety Authority – and the clinicians who are engaged by it – for policy, codes of practice, advice and complaints guidelines

Responding to complaints without addressing the issues that are giving rise to the problem is just counting numbers, keeping tallies so to speak, and that is just not enough. We need everyone in the workplace to see bullying and harassment for what they are and we need everyone to understand them in all their forms and to have a template for reviewing wrongly held beliefs and resetting their own organisational culture.

Professionals in the field know the human costs that are involved, the damage to health, the suffering and often the broken lives and futures. We also see the impact on families and relationships.

Workplace bullying institute polls show a range of the most common symptoms presenting in those targeted - 80% of people had anxiety, 52% had panic attacks, 49% had depression and 30% had post-traumatic stress disorder.

We also know that staff who are targeted offset their pain through various negative and maladaptive behaviours, like social withdrawal, self-destructive behaviours and displacement or taking it out on others.

Targeted person usually high performing 

We know that managers find this area challenging and difficult, often reporting to us that they are uncomfortable with the ambiguity around it, as it seems to them to be about individual perception and one person may have difficulty with a person where others will not.

People often think that the person who is bullied may have some psychological weakness and that they may in some way draw this behaviour to themselves. The research shows that the opposite is the case: that the targeted person is usually high performing and often a threat to the bully themselves.

Bullying and harassment is a serious and costly issue for everyone involved. Managers, especially in the private sector, can and do measure the direct costs, the sick leave, the low performance and indeed the opportunity cost of all the time, effort, creativity and effect on other staff that these issues cause.

The imperative of profit that drives the private sector is in my view a protective factor for staff. That is not to say that bullying and harassment does not occur there, it does.

However in the private sector it tends to be single events, and there is a keen interest and commitment to dealing with the issue, up front and as quickly as possible.

Managers in the private sector look to those with expertise in the area to assist them to deal with the matter in a transparent and open fashion, mindful of their legal, health, safety and duty of care obligations to all staff involved.

In the public sector we are seeing a very different dynamic, where less formal individual complaints are made and staff report that they do not feel safe to do so.

Not trusting the system

In addition, while the Protected Disclosures Act of 2014 provides for an employee to make a disclosure to their employer invoking the protection of their identity and of their future career, staff report not trusting this system either and instead they are seeking a third-party to represent their concerns.

Resolution of bullying complaints is fraught with complexity and difficulty and in the end the targeted staff member is more often the one who leaves the workplace.

In 52% of cases, where mediation was used as a first step approach the bully bore no consequence and the targeted staff member left their job in 33% of cases.

EAPA, the Employee Assistance Professionals Association is running an anti-bullying campaign to focus the hearts and minds of everyone at work on how it’s in everyone’s reach to play a part in purging bullying and harassment from within an organisation.

We hope to involve all levels of the organisation, those who manage, those who may be bullied and those who may witness that kind of behaviour.

We want everyone to check their thinking, their long-held beliefs, to know the facts, to understand the behaviours and the part they can play in making sure bullying and harassment does not happen on their watch.

It is our firm belief that staff and management will respond positively to the campaign and will value getting some clear understanding of the simple steps that can make a difference. These small actions can build to making a real impact on these toxic behaviours that have no place at work.

Stephanie Regan is a clinical psychotherapist and president of EAPA Ireland. 

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About the author:

Stephanie Regan  / Clinical Psychotherapist

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