20 Oct. 2020
Workplace Bully

The beloved television talk show host and comedian, Ellen Degeneres, has come under fire for fostering a toxic workplace. It seems surreal that a seemingly kind and positive celebrity can act so unlike her public persona. More and more allegations of harassment and workplace bullying are surfacing with many people confirming that the Ellen Show is indeed a toxic workplace. In my opinion, the word bullying dilutes the severity of the situation- it is peer harassment and abuse. For now, we can state that workplace bullying includes the tactics that are used in order to oppress another human being. It is more than having an off day or conflict with a co-worker, workplace bullying is systematic, targeted conduct driven by the need to control another individual. The main tactics are intended to : 

  • Threaten, intimidate and humiliate
  • Interfere with work
  • Create a cycle of violence through abuse 

Bullying in the workplace can include tactics by commission which is doing things to others or omission which is withholding resources. These actions are always initiated by the perpetrator and can include using other co-workers or manipulating policy. 

Essentially, workplace bullying is a breach of trust with attempts to exploit the target. It is confusing especially when the bully is someone who you care about, admire, respect and/or you believe in the company's values and missions. Those factors create a situation where you may minimize the bully’s behavior, second guess yourself, create ways to gain approval with the bully, and even advocate for the bully and/or organization. Maybe there was just enough truth in what the abuser said or that their actions can be ‘justified’ in policy- then you are left wondering if it’s just in your head! 

Confusion and exploitation result in what Patrick Carnes calls a “betrayal bond”. 

Carnes writes in his book “The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships”:

“Abandonment is at the core of addictions. Abandonment causes deep shame. Abandonment by betrayal is worse than mindless neglect. Betrayal is purposeful and self-serving. If severe enough, it is traumatic. What moves betrayal into the realm of trauma is fear and terror. If the wound is deep enough, and the terror big enough, your bodily systems shift to an alarm state. You never feel safe. You’re always on full-alert, just waiting for the hurt to begin again. In that state of readiness, you’re unaware that part of you has died. You are grieving. Like everyone who has loss, you have shock and disbelief, fear, loneliness and sadness. Yet you are unaware of these feelings because your guard is up. In your readiness, you abandon yourself. Yes, another abandonment.”

Does that sound familiar? Carnes notes that betrayal bonds occur across the spectrum including hostage situations, domestic violence, incest, prisoners of war….and workplace bullying.  An interesting observation happened in my practice, as I worked primarily with sexual abuse and domestic violence survivors I wanted to have diversity in my clients so I  started seeing people who identified as experiencing anxiety and who wanted work-life balance. After a few sessions, it would become painstakingly obvious that the problem was workplace bullying.  I observed that the language used and symptoms exhibited by domestic violence survivors and people who were bullied at work were similar! As Carnes stated, both groups “abandon” themselves for survival at home or at work. 

What does this look like: 

  • Physical symptoms of stress (headaches, insomnia, digestive issues, chronic tension).
  • Increased anxiety, panic attacks which followed by the lows of depression. 
  • Detached self-soothing through food, internet, alcohol, drugs, and tv. 
  • Increased startle response and response to triggers (as one person said “When I hear the clicking of heels down the hallway, I get sick to my stomach”). 
  • “Tunnel Vision Effect”, not being able to see options outside of the current situation resulting in a hopeless resignation. 
  • Mood swings, irritability, and negativity.
  • Social isolation. 

The hard truth is that most workplaces are not properly equipped to manage and eliminate bullying for a variety of reasons including a strong hierarchical structure, lack of accountability measures for upper management, and fear of conflict. That doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything! 

Depending on your sense of job security, the employer’s structure, and your financial situation there are varying degrees of which you advocate for yourself:

  • Keep records to establish a pattern and document events, include the facts then state your feelings(this is effective for acknowledging the event). Refrain from opinions, guessing, and name-calling. 
  • Go to your human resources department if you have one and seek advice. 
  • Go directly to the bully and state how their behavior impacts you. It IS possible that the person who is targeting you is unaware of their actions and how they impact. 
  • Go to upper management, the owner and/or the board of directors. 
  • File a complaint with your province or state’s human rights commission. 

In the meantime, what can you do to get through? Think of the acronym AXES: 

A- Acknowledge the facts of the events and affirm your experience.  Do this by labelling the behavior and getting education on workplace health and wellness. 

X- eXperience your emotions. Take some time to identify what you are experiencing. Name it to tame it!

E- Explore your options. Look at other job opportunities, ways to build new skills, and maybe even what you can do to make your current work more bearable. 

S- Support and soothe. Get support from people outside work. Get counselling, go to exercise classes, be around friends, practice breathwork, garden, etc. Remember to keep living your life!

You can get through this! If you don’t know where to start, look for professional help such as a counsellor, psychologist, or life coach. For more information on working with me in moving forward in your career and life, check out my website www.steelecounselling.com

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