July 15, 2016
Frequent teariness, anxiety, fearfulness, insomnia and changes in appetite are likely first symptoms of workplace stress. My clients who report these symptoms are also somewhat baffled by what could be the cause. They tell me, “I love my job and I’m good at it, so why does it suddenly upset me so much?“
Let’s take the case of Joan who works as a nurse in a local hospital. She came to see me complaining that her panic attacks were getting worse and she was crying most days, unable to cope with a workload that, just a few months previously, had been no problem for her.
Joan said she was intending to build a new house. Her bank manager told her she needed to earn just a little extra so as to afford the loan. Joan’s calculations revealed she could manage the loan if she did an extra four hours’ overtime each week.
Overtime was abundantly available since the introduction of a freeze on new hires until December. However, changing her schedule meant that Joan had to reconsider her work/life balance so as to make enough time for her family. A colleague agreed to swap shifts with her so she could spend Sundays with her grandkids instead of at work.
Joan approached her clinical coordinator with a reasonable proposal that wouldn’t cause inconvenience to the smooth running of the hospital.
Her boss, Lilliane, flat out refused her request, even though she had recently swapped other employees’ shifts and given them overtime. She blatantly favoured certain nurses and made vague excuses why she couldn’t accommodate Joan.
By the time Joan came to see me, she had tearfully accepted her lot, but it meant a decrease in her quality of life. She had to postpone her building project because the overtime she wanted was denied her. She also had to give up reclaiming her Sundays with family, which meant she only saw them once a month.
Joan felt trapped, stuck and as if her life were outside her control. Additionally, she suddenly developed a phobia of driving that limited her scant freedom even more. She was shocked to find herself helpless, weak and lacking in energy, when she’d previously considered herself resilient, resourceful and independent.
I suggested to Joan that she was exhibiting typical symptoms related to workplace bullying, which shocked her. She had no idea why anyone would target her since she went out of her way to do a good job, was always available to run extra errands for her boss and was mild-mannered, quiet and utterly inoffensive. Surely there had to be a more logical explanation?
Targets of workplace bullying are often so shocked by hostile behaviour that they don’t figure out they’re being bullied until six to eighteen months’ down the track, by which time their mental and physical health have irrevocably broken down.
When you’re being bullied at work, I always stress how important it is to “catch it early,” but how can you catch it early when you don’t even know what’s going on? The legal definition of workplace bullying according to the Fair Work Commission (Australia) is:
Repeated, unreasonable behaviour by one or more people that creates a risk to the health and safety of the target/s at whom the behaviour is directed, not including reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.
Once you realise what’s going on, there are five things you can do to claim back your power:
1. Create A Workplace Bullying Timeline:
Gather all evidence of workplace bullying you can find and put it into a timeline. This includes all emails, policy and procedure documents, witness statements, recordings and every other item you can think of in an exhaustive paper trail. Keep any hard copies away from your workplace.
2. Record Hostile Events:
Start writing down all the incidents you can remember where you were the target of unreasonable behaviour that upset you. If you can’t recall exact dates, approximate. Just record the behavioural facts and NOT your judgements, assumptions or theories about the facts. Expect this task to take several weeks. It’s OK to take your time, just get it done.
3. Set up a Dropbox Account
Use a new (yahoo, hotmail or gmail) email address and password that only you know, then use it to set up an anonymous Dropbox account in which to store all your evidence in the cloud. Make sure to NOT access this account at work and don’t leave an evidence trail even on your devices at home.
4. Gather Your Support Team
Let your family and friends know what’s happening to you and that they may be called upon to support you. Even more importantly, make sure you have a good GP who’s willing to give you stress leave and initiate a worker’s compensation claim if you need it. Find a good psychologist who understands how to heal from workplace bullying, as well as a good lawyer who will represent you well if you need to take your case to court.
I have prepared an evidence gathering kit for you to help you implement the previous suggestions step by step. This kit includes:
* Two Checklists:
1) The 30 most common tactics used by workplace bullies
2) A list of the 33 most frequent mental and physical health symptoms suffered as a result of being targeted.
* An Evidence Form:
Go through the checklists to identify which items apply to you, then add them (along with your factual description of incidents) to the re-usable evidence form included in the kit, which you can then file in your chronological timeline.
* An Official Complaint Letter Template:
Using the above checklist and the evidence you’ve collected, bring it all together in an official letter that succinctly summarises the problem you wish to address. Notice that the letter describes only the facts and doesn’t include the specifics of the emotional impact on you (because HR don’t care how you feel – no, they really don’t). Hence, this letter is free of emotional hooks.
Once you have your evidence neatly put together, take some time to reflect on whether a complaint to HR is your best move, since HR are there to protect the company from you rather than protect you.
A good reason for complaining is if you want to take a case to court and use it to demonstrate an evidence trail whereby you followed the exact policies and procedures outlined by the company – who still did nothing.
If you want the bullying to STOP, a complaint to HR is unlikely to achieve much other than getting you labeled as a troublemaker and it’s commonplace for complainants to get performance-managed out of their job.
According to research, 70% of those targeted lose their job, while less than 13% of bullies lose theirs – so though it’s possible you could get lucky and have your complaint taken seriously, the statistics suggest otherwise. Whatever you choose I wish you the best of luck!
You can get your Workplace Evidence Gathering Kit by clicking here.
Dr Sophie Henshaw is a Work Stress Strategist, Author and Doctor of Psychology who also works as a clinical psychologist in private practice in Western Australia. She’s helps mid-career professionals working in toxic workplaces with bully bosses walk away from work stress without losing their career, reputation, income or sanity in her online program, "Walk Away From Work Stress." Dr Sophie is the author of “Stressed, Depressed And Dreading Mondays” and has contributed a chapter in Anton Hout's book: “What Every Target Of Workplace Bullying Needs To Know.” She also writes for her blog at: www.freespiritedme.com and has made media appearances on Channel 10, 6PR, Huffpost Live, WA Today, Ninemsn Health and is a contributor to Huffington post, Women’s Agenda and PsychCentral online magazines. In 2017 she presented at the “No More Harm” conference and in 2016 was a keynote speaker at the "No2Bullying conference," as well as the inaugural HPARA conference.