It was 3am. Bolt upright in bed, I was gasping for breath, my heart pounding. Another night-time panic attack. This was followed by yet another 14-hour workday and a bottle of wine to help wash away the anxiety. It had taken my boss a matter of months to reduce me to this – but it took me much longer to recognise it as bullying.
I was not your obvious victim. I was confident and experienced when I started at my old company, but that is precisely what made me a target. My boss perceived me as a threat. The better I did, the worse it got. Going to work every day was like being repeatedly mugged. She undermined me constantly, rejected my work and continually came up with new and inventive ways to set me up for failure.
She was both my manager and – the irony was not lost on me – head of HR. Assuming it was somehow all my fault, I turned to her for guidance. This opened up an endless loop of criticism and "advice", which appeared solicitous but led to tripwires and dead ends.
Blindsided and with my confidence in tatters, I turned to a friend in the industry and asked her to review my work. Had I simply lost it? She assured me that my work was not the issue – my boss was.
Eventually, I saw only one option. I put all my efforts into finding another job, landed a couple of offers and resigned. The day I handed in my notice was the day the bullying stopped. Just before I left, my colleagues confided in me that they had seen what was going on but felt powerless to step in. Turns out I was not her first victim; she had form. She was a serial abuser and it wasn’t long before she targeted someone else.
Nearly a third of people in the UK are bullied at work, according to a poll. Women are more likely to be victims than men and the highest prevalence of workplace bullying is among 40- to 59-year-olds. As the statistics show, bullying at work is often left unchallenged. Bullies are master manipulators and can hide in plain sight. People in the workplace often see what’s going on, but are afraid to point it out; easier to ignore it or, worse still, become a crony of the bully. And so the victim feels guilty and isolated. Their mental and physical health suffers and, along with it, their performance. The bully wins.
Who pays the price here? Putting aside the often devastating impact on the victim, bullying is bad for business. Bullies chew up valuable talent and spit it out. They reduce productivity and suppress creativity. Bullying results in higher absenteeism and employee turnover, as well as increased recruitment and retraining costs. It decreases engagement, damages the company’s image and can end up in lawsuits and legal costs. All of which directly hits the bottom line. So companies cannot afford to ignore this.
I now work at a company that embraces individuality and where diversity, inclusion and mental health are top of the agenda. Employees are encouraged to share their experiences and insights, stand up for others and speak out when needed. There are also regular visits from mental-health experts who provide one-to-one counselling on matters both professional and personal.
My own experience with bullying took several years to come to terms with. I wrestled with battered confidence and a mistrust of colleagues. But while it derailed me from my then career path, it led me into a new field that I’m extremely passionate about – talent development. In a competitive business landscape, employers need to hire, retain and continuously upskill the very best talent and this can’t be achieved in a climate of fear.
Business leaders cannot afford to look the other way when a bullying culture takes hold in the workplace. It will drain away your talent and ultimately damage your business.
If you’re being bullied at work, here’s my advice:
- Find out more about your company’s policies on bullying, values and workplace behaviour. These should be upheld at every level across the organisation. If not, then HR and senior leadership need to hear about it.
- If you’re not able to talk to HR or someone senior, you may have access to an employee assistance programme or a union, or try talking to Citizens Advice.
- If your bully is a client, escalating it to the attention of the most senior client relationship can help to address bad behaviour. Any agency worth its salt will be keen to protect its employees and stop abuse of power.
- A symptom of bullying is self-doubt. Am I overreacting? Did I deserve it? Keep a detailed note of any incident of harassment: the date, time, place, who was involved, what happened, how it made you feel and the names of any witnesses.
- Talk to someone. Don’t try to deal with it alone. It could be a colleague, a friend or a family member. Talking about it will help clear your head and get another perspective, and may help you find more confidence to defend yourself.
- Lastly, if you just can’t see a way out, take back control by exploring other options. Leaving is not failure; sometimes it’s self-preservation.
Claire Rogerson is senior talent development partner at Rapp UK