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What's the best way to react to a bully in the workplace?

The sad fact is that there has been an increase in workplace bullying in some professions.

THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION about bullying is to be welcomed, but it needs to start including more about what happens in the workplace. By this stage, we are all aware of the many laudable campaigns to tackle bullying in schools and online, but the sad fact remains that there has been an increase in workplace bullying in some professions.

Indeed, as recently as two weeks ago, it was reported that almost 60% of professionals working in the nursing and midwifery sector had experienced some form of bullying. Blame it on the recession, increased workloads or more stress in the workplace, but whatever the cause, such a statistic shows that there is a need for employees who are subjected to bullying to face it down.

Recognising a bully

To do this, people must first recognise that they are being bullied. It usually involves acts or verbal comments that could mentally hurt or isolate a person in the workplace, but it can also involve inappropriate physical contact. Typically, it’s not limited to a one-off incident and often involves repeated incidents or a pattern of behaviour that are intended to intimidate, offend, degrade, undermine or humiliate a particular person (or sometimes a group of people).

It is no coincidence that workplace bullying has been described as the assertion of power through aggression. However, bullying can also be passive-aggressive, indirect and quite subtle.

This less open form of bullying can include making offensive jokes by spoken word or e-mail, socially excluding or isolating a colleague and making false statements or starting false rumours and gossip about a colleague. In some cases, it can extend to impeding a person’s work. This can involve removing duties and responsibilities or changing work guidelines without explanation, actions which are designed to undermine a person.

In some instances, people who were subjected to bullying were set impossible deadlines, had information withheld from them or were deliberately told the wrong information to ensure that they would fail in their workplace duties.

How should you react?

So what can you do if you are being bullied in the workplace?

You should start by telling the perpetrator that their behaviour is not acceptable and ask them to stop. If the behaviour persists, keep a factual journal or diary of daily events, with a record of the date, time and what happened as well as the names of witnesses and the outcome of the event.

It is important that victims can provide evidence of the number, frequency, and especially the pattern that can reveal the bullying or harassment. For that reason, it is of vital importance to keep copies of any letters, memos, e-mails or texts from the bully. We also strongly advise that the person who is being bullied reports the harassment to a supervisor or line manager and keeps a record of when such reports are made.

However, under no circumstances should you consider retaliating against a bully.

You may end up looking like the perpetrator and any retaliation will cause confusion for those responsible for evaluating and responding to the situation. That doesn’t mean that you should suffer in silence and it is important that you seek support from a friend, relative, GP or counsellor/psychotherapist if you are being subjected to bullying in the workplace.

Workplace stress

Workplace harassment or bullying may cause stress. Stress can manifest itself in a number of different ways, including feeling anxious, irritable or overwhelmed. Sufferers can become aggressive or sad and sometimes find it hard to sleep. At the end, people can suffer panic attacks and have repetitive behaviour such as nail biting.

If you suffer from workplace stress, try to identify what is causing it. Write down the issues that cause you the most anxiety. Are the issues particular one-off situations or is it ongoing general challenges that are stressing you?

Make sure to speak to your manager and explain how the workload or work environment is affecting you. Don’t be afraid to ask for support.

Physical activity can help to reduce feelings of stress. It will help you to clear your head and allow you to think more clearly about how you can deal with the issues causing you stress. Regular exercise will help you feel calmer and give you a stronger mental outlook, which allow you to find solutions.

Give yourself a break

Equally, it is important to take breaks, especially if you have a heavy work load. If you don’t you will feel tired, be unable to think straight and ultimately become less motivated. Time your breaks and take them – no matter what. Even after just a ten minute break you will feel more invigorated and you will be more productive.

It is also important to socialise and not neglect your personal life, but don’t rely on alcohol, smoking or even coffee. While these habits make you feel good in the very short term, but ultimately they can contribute to your low mood.

Finally, don’t isolate yourself – there is no value from carrying this stress on your own. Talk to your family and friends and get support. They may have good ideas or similar experiences they can share with you which can give you a new perspective.

Shane Kelly is spokesman for the Irish Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (IACP). For a full list of accredited counsellors and psychotherapists, visit

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