It’s no secret, workplace bullying is expensive. As a nation, Australia spends $6 to $36 billion per year – at least that’s what The Productivity Commission estimated in 2010. Now, almost a decade later, not only have costs risen significantly, but the rate of workplace bullying itself has also increased (as much as half of all employees over the span of their careers and 5 to 7% at any given point in time, according to a 2016 study conducted by the University of Wollongong).
It comes as no surprise then that HR departments are highly motivated to return a finding of “zero bullying” as a result of investigations. Additionally, insurance companies routinely reject worker’s compensation claims, especially in industries more prone to making psychological injury claims, such as paramedics and the police force.
In a recent case, the Victim Support Services in South Australia was outed in the media as being an organisation rife with bullying, forcing the CEO to stand down. In the report, there were two Return to Work SA claims made – one was accepted, the other rejected.
Why was that, when it’s highly likely, given their widely reported workplace hostility, that both employees were bullied? Although I can’t comment with any certainty about this particular case, I think that one person probably had a convincing case, while the other did not.
I regularly witness the role emotion has to play in the failure of official complaint letters and worker’s comp claims. The most frequent emotional mistakes I see are as follows:
1) Being Flooded With Overwhelming Emotion
Work stress can become so traumatising that it’s hard to think straight. Physiologically, the parts of the brain involved in language production, recognition and cognition (such as Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area) shut down and the brain reverts to processing information in vivid nonverbal and subconscious ways (such as nightmares and flashbacks).
The centres involved in reacting to fear – “fight, flight or freeze” – (such as the amygdala, thalamus, hippocampus, hypothalamus and brain stem) all get activated, resulting in being flooded with overwhelming emotion without the ability to understand, rationalise or digest the experience properly.
Consequently, the stories of people bullied at work are often disorganised, incoherent and rambling. The impairment of their narratives in official documentation means they aren’t believed or taken seriously. The readers of such narratives (e.g., HR or insurance investigators) typically become bored or disinterested, sometimes even before reaching the end of paragraph one.
2) Tunnel Vision
States of high stress lead to a narrowing of vision and attention, with the person becoming centred only on the immediate threat. The mind becomes preoccupied with how to react in accordance with survival fears and peripheral details (usually important in a case) are lost.
Thus, complainants’ letters are typically centred on personal opinions of the perpetrator and their own emotional reactions to him or her. The simple, descriptive facts of what happened get lost in a sea of reactivity.
To read the account of someone targeted by a workplace bully is often to get lost in a world of confusion and distress, often tens of pages long, with no clear idea of what actually happened.
3) Projecting Into The Future
Someone in such a heightened state of distress often focuses too much on the future, making inaccurate predictions about what will happen based on temporary crisis. Hence the mind becomes agitated with needlessly racing thoughts, as if it’s essential to solve all problems right now.
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Once the complaint / claim process is initiated, it’s a slow-moving beast and there’s plenty of time to reflect and consider the wisest course of action at any given moment.
Granted, new information presents itself rapidly during this crisis period, which requires a nimble and responsive approach – which can only be achieved by a calm and centred mind.
Therefore it’s best to practice mindfulness on a daily basis, to facilitate being centred in the present moment and taking a far more effective course of action.
To find out how to practice mindfulness correctly, download your free resource guide, “The Silence of Mindfulness: A Simple Guide To Inner Peace And Emotional Wellbeing” here.
4) Assuming Your Reader Should Care How You Feel
Outrage is a common reaction to being bullied, which is often liberally expressed in complaint letters to HR. Most complainants assume their reader should be equally outraged, see the injustice being perpetrated and therefore should do something about it.
It’s unfortunate to discover that no one really cares how you feel. HR are more likely to be burdened by the onerous task of responding to your rambling, boring complaint – unless (and this is important) you can mobilise HR’s self-interest to sit up and pay attention.
Readers will become alert if they feel threatened and can clearly perceive a negative outcome arising as a result of ignoring the claimant’s concerns. This threat could be financial in nature (it often is) or foreshadow the imminent closure of the company.
5) Not Having The Right Strategy To Do A Good Job
The question is, what is the best way to make a complaint? Adopting a methodical, disciplined approach to collecting and reporting evidence is essential. Additionally, approaching this task as a major writing project will help calm the mind, even in the midst of turmoil.
To that end, I have put together a Workplace Evidence Gathering Kit to help you make the most convincing case to HR you possibly can. In it, I walk you through, step-by-step, all the way from how, when and why to gather the correct evidence and to putting it all together in a succinct and powerful official complaint letter.