Sticks and stones: the business of bullying in the workplace

Bullying isn’t just for kids in the playground, but what effect is the workplace bully having on our mental health? Aoife Loughnane investigates

Gone may be the days of “give me your lunch money” and going to bed on a Sunday night in dreaded anticipation of school the next morning. However, the exact same gut-wrenching feeling can still be an occurrence in your adult life.

The Health and Safety Authority define workplace bullying as “repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual‘s right to dignity at work”.

According to the ERSI 2007 report on ‘Bullying in the Workplace’, 7.9% of the surveyed participants had experienced bullying within the previous 6 months (equivalent to 159,000 people), in addition to 48% admitting that it has had a negative effect on their life outside work.

It would seem that bullying in the workplace is something of a silent epidemic. Is it easier to suffer quietly than to risk the ramifications that might accompany reporting such incidents?


The victim’s perspective

James O’Higgins Norman is the Director of the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre at DCU. He says that the responsibility lies with the employers to ensure that bullying in the workplace doesn’t happen.

“The research clearly shows that employers who maintain robust policies and implement them are less likely to have a case of workplace bullying succeed against them,” he says.

However, sometimes the bully can actually be the employer themselves, and that situation is inherently trickier. One legal secretary has experienced this form of bullying.


“If you’re being bullied in work, it can be very hard to pinpoint it and harder still to know what to do if it’s happening.”

                                                     -Carmen Bryce, Communications Officer with MyMind


Sarah Murphy* (37)  was mere weeks into her new job when her boss started to single her out regularly for her mistakes. At the beginning, I just thought that maybe the boss was having a bad day.  It was as if no matter what I did it was wrong. He constantly moved the goalposts and changed the running of the office.”

However, quickly their relationship became volatile and that’s when Sarah realised that his behaviour was out of line. “He would panic over the least thing and when he panicked he became verbally abusive, which was very frequent.  He had a very short fuse and a bad temper,” she says.


Effect on mental health

Unfortunately, these frequent outbursts became more personal and it started to affect her mental health. “My confidence was slowly being shattered. I was afraid to even make a phone call or take a call for that matter,” Sarah admits.

MyMind Centre for Mental Wellbeing is a resource that can offer victims of workplace bullying support in the aftermath of the event.  Carmen Bryce, Communications Officer with MyMind,  says that bullying isn’t limited to a specific time in your life, it can rear it’s ugly head at any age.

She explains that “bullying can take the form of verbal abuse, psychological or social intimidation, excluding or isolating you from people or situations, psychological harassment, physical or sexual abuse.” Sarah’s situation falls into the category of psychological and social imitation as well as verbal abuse.  


“He constantly moved the goalposts and changed the running of the office…It got so bad that I ended up going to my GP and spent the visit crying.”

                                                                      -Sarah Murphy*, victim of workplace bullying


Ms Bryce continues, “bullying can have a very negative impact on your confidence and self-esteem. It can make you feel anxious, low and lonely and it can be hard to see an end to it.”

When thinking about workplace bullying, you might naturally assume that it happens to younger and inexperienced employees. However, Sarah explains that this wasn’t the case with her. “I had years of experience under my belt. I became a very nervous and anxious person and dreaded going into work. I began to constantly doubt myself.”

So how much of a toll did the bullying take on her mental state?  “I developed insomnia. It got so bad that I ended up going to my GP and spent the visit crying. I was given medication to calm me down and medication to help me sleep for 10 days and a sick cert for two weeks.”


Reporting the bullying

Many victims of workplace bullying are afraid to speak up, in fear of aggravating the bully. “We spend so much of our time in the workplace and you may feel like you don’t want to rock the boat in case you risk losing your job,” Ms Bryce says.

For Sarah, she decided enough was enough and went to her GP. “It was put on my sick cert that I would be out of work for two weeks due to ‘stress relating to work’ as I wanted him to know the effect he was having on me.”

Was she not wary of the repercussions of her actions?  “I was afraid and when I went back he wanted to have a meeting with me. Unfortunately, he did all the talking and I had a list of things to discuss with him but they never got discussed.”

Watch what MyMind does via Youtube

Visiting her GP and taking time off helped to strengthen Sarah mental health.  “My anxiety has improved a bit since as he doesn’t verbally abuse me so much anymore but I am getting stronger and standing up to him now. At least now I know he is the problem and that in itself has made me feel more confident.”

She adds, “I also did a two-day stress management course and that is where I was shown breathing exercises and that helps a lot also.”


The legal route

But what if the situation requires mediation from a legal professional? Tracey Solicitors has over 30 years experience in dealing with workplace disputes. Employment Law solicitor Piarais Neary explains that they would advise the employee to try and resolve the matter internally first before consulting them.

“The employer must be allowed an opportunity to resolve the complaint internally first. If the resolution as implemented by the employer does not stop the behaviour complained of then the employee should consider proceeding with a case,” he says.

Mr Neary suggests keeping a diary of when and where the bullying took place “with dates, times, who was involved and the complaints made to management.”

If you are currently involved in workplace bullying and are considering bringing it to a solicitor, then you should gather as much information about the bullying as you can as it will help to validate your case.

“We always suggest that clients prepare a detailed statement of events, this is helpful in providing advice and also helps the employee reflect upon the events that have been troubling them,” Mr Neary concludes.

TED Talk by Sherry Benson-Podolchuk via Youtube

Tips to help

Finding yourself in a workplace dispute that involves bullying is an uncomfortable and difficult position to be in. Some simple steps that can help you to deal with the bullying are as follows;

1. Say something. It might seem scary but you talking to someone is the first step when it comes to being bullied. Speak to an HR manager, your boss, or a trusted colleague.

2. As Mr Neary said, writing everything down is crucial. Dates, times, who was around, what exactly was said – all if this is vital information. It will help your case to seem as authentic as it possibly can.

3. Try not to get hot-headed or lose your temper. Staying calm at all times is imperative.

4. Remember, if the bullying is affecting your mental or physical health and as a result, your life outside work, then you should contact your local GP for help.

Getting statistics on bullying in Ireland is extremely tricky and therefore makes it difficult to know exactly who is suffering.

On one hand, solicitor Pirais Neary says, “Like many solicitors we receive calls on a regular basis regarding employment matters, many dealing with the issue of bullying.” While on the other hand, the ERSI 2007 Report is the most recent report containing bullying figures and Mark Ryan of the HSA says that “we gather statistics on accidents and occupational illness, we don’t have any stats on bullying that we can share.”

So, if you find yourself in a situation at work where you know that you are being bullied – do something about it. Don’t conform to the silent epidemic and don’t let someone get away with making you feel inferior. Work is already difficult enough, right?




*names changed

Featured Image via Herman Kaser, licensed by Creative Commons

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