The Scapegoat At Work – Recovering From Workplace Bullying

Photo Credit: Hartwig HDK - Flickr - ScapegoatPhoto Credit: Hartwig HDK – Flickr

by Glynis Sherwood

Workplace bullying is scapegoating on the job. Many people who are bullied at work suffer alone due to the silencing effects of being blamed, shamed, humiliated and fearful of losing employment. Next to the threat of losing income, the deepest harm from workplace bullying stems from the emotional, social and spiritual hurt of being abused on the job.Bullying reflects a crisis of civility in the work world. Much like family scapegoating, targets of workplace bullying are ostracized and demonized.

Encouragingly, there is increasing push back by workers who will not tolerate being subjected to abuse on the job. On the other hand, these targets need concrete measures to protect them on the job – protection that is sadly lacking in most workplace responses to personal harassment. But even when support is forthcoming from employers, many targets require professional help in order to recover from ‘psychological injury’.

How Workplace Bullying Causes Psychological Injury & Traumatic Grief

There are many layers of loss, grief and harm to self worth associated with being bullied on the job that can lead to psychological injury. Here’s how it can happen:

  1. Workplace bullying – aka personal harassment – is a form of repeated, systematic abuse and scapegoating. The abuse is primarily of an emotional and verbal nature, but can sometimes escalate to physical assault against the target. The abuse is hurtful in itself, but it is the reoccurring betrayal of this harmful behavior – often in front of witnesses – that causes psychological injury over time.
  2. When people are abused at work, they feel the shock and pain of being assaulted. The psychological injury of workplace bullying in large part stems from a breach of the target’s beliefs that they are a valued member of their work place, and that work should be a safe, civil and predictable environment.
  3. If the target of workplace bullying finds the courage to report the bullying behavior to management, the target is usually disbelieved or discredited by the employer. Or the bullying may be incorrectly viewed as a ‘personality conflict’ between two equal players who are expected to sort out their differences. So the target is injured again by the discrediting, lack of support or protection from the employer, as well as the absence of appropriate remedies, including disciplining abusive employees.
  4. The target of workplace bullying becomes increasingly fearful that they will lose their job, due to an escalating inability to cope with the stress that is now affecting their performance. Many targets also feel anxious when they recognize that not only does their employer not understand or admit the harm of abuse, but is becoming hostile towards the target who turns to them to seek justice – in essence re-victimizing the target.
  5. Targets often start to lose time from work due to stress and fear, undermining their reputation and income, which in turn increases their vulnerability.
  6. The target is dehumanized by abusive behavior which denies them their most fundamental human rights – i.e. the right to work in a civil environment where respect is the norm, and abuse is not tolerated but dealt with swiftly to bring it to a stop.
  7. Targets of workplace bullying tend to experience widespread disbelief from friends, family and workplace advocates such as unions, in addition to employers, leading to ‘disenfranchised grief’ – a term for socially unrecognized grief. Socially unrecognized grief can lead targets to suffer in silence due to fear of being discredited and unsupported should they disclose their pain.
  8. Being abused repeatedly in an atmosphere of denial and minimization can lead to traumatic stress, depression and anxiety, as the psychological injuries from bullying are neither acknowledged, prevented or stopped.
  9. The vast majority of targets will either be fired or forced to resign due to intolerable working conditions. This displacement causes social, financial and vocational loss to the target, as well as the loss of immediate control over their ability to provide themselves – and their loved ones – with a livelihood. The ultimate loss however is that of their work community, and banishment as a outcast from that community. his form of scapegoating is tremendously devastating to the targets sense of self worth, esteem, identity, safety and place in the world. This cascade of loss can lead to chronic anxiety, grief, depression and traumatic responses, including intense fear and/or numbing.

How To Deal With The Loss & Grief of Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is one of the most insidious and harmful forms of social abuse and scapegoating, and sadly tends to be poorly dealt with by both employers and legislators. As I write this article, workplace bullying is legal in the majority of Canadian provinces, and most states in the U.S. Even those provinces and states with anti-bullying legislation have poor track records so far, as laws are only as good and powerful as those willing to enforce them. In the meantime, targets have been put in a position of being their own advocates. As their own advocates, targets need to focus on the following strategies to minimize their losses and regain their psychological well being:

  1. Developing a Safety Plan while still employed. A Safety Plan focuses on protecting oneself on the job and being strategic in dealing with stress, documenting abuse, forging alliances, developing assertiveness skills, handling management and unions, etc.
  2. Creating an Exit Plan while still employed. The purpose of an Exit Plan is to help the target decide ahead of time when and how to leave an intolerable job situation on the best possible terms, such as accessing paid medical leave, having references in place, another job lined up, etc.
  3. After leaving an abusive job situation, targets might benefit from Post-Workplace Bullying Counselling to help them recover from grief, anxiety and trauma, and to rebuild their careers from a position of strength. Counselling focuses on reclaiming self worth and self identity back from the sphere of abuse. Clients may need to learn to calm their nervous systems and to challenge negative beliefs in order to reduce anxiety and overcome depressed thinking. They may need to learn to stop avoiding anxiety provoking situations, such as job interviews, so they are no longer controlled by fear. Targets may also benefit from specific trauma interventions, such as progressive desensitization or hypnotherapy, in order to stop re-experiencing traumatic responses. Overcoming disillusionment and developing a new, more hopeful world view is also necessary to regaining psychological well being.

Have you left an abusive job and need help overcoming the hurt of workplace bullying so you can rebound and get your life back on track?  Click Here to Request an Appointment

Counselling services are available in person in Vancouver Canada or by Video around the world.

Glynis Sherwood MEd, RCC, CCC, is a Counselling Therapist specializing in recovery from scapegoating, grief, anxiety, depression or addictive behaviors.

  • Christine Gates

    I have been through this multiple times. The most difficult part was the psychological pain that you have mentioned. Being treated badly in front of others is awful. It eats away at self-respect and confidence and can be disabling for people like myself who were originally scapegoated in their families of origin.

    I do not publicize where I work so people who wish me harm cannot influence this aspect of my life. I’ve gotten smarter.

    There is definitely a pattern, a re-occurrence, for people like myself who have been abused as the scapegoat at home to repeat this abuse and injustice, even when they do not desire it, in their workplace. There were a few situations where I should have taken legal action sooner. One employer was so incredibly insensitive to my struggles, worked me to the bone during and after a trauma and then released me. I was so weary, broken and alone I didn’t know I had options or could fight back. I have had to work my way up from that.

    It is still very hard for me. I felt completely exploited and discarded. I have had to work tough jobs just to pay the bills and it’s getting better. But, I still often times find myself trying to avoid being the person who gets bullied at work. I admit to sometimes being defensive, but it’s only out of fear.

    Being bullied has cost me many jobs. I didn’t deserve for those things to happen either. This makes explaining to employers why you were released or why you don’t want them to contact someone very difficult . I have told people in interviews the truth and the job offers don’t come. It’s like they side with the abusers every time. That hurts. After that job loss a few ago, I have literally applied for easily over one thousand jobs. Filling out applications only to be rejected over and again is doubly painful. I have had to accept jobs where I am over-qualified and underpaid. The hours are long, there is no time off and I can barely pay my bills. This is how being bullied all around hurts really good people. It is quite literally heartbreaking.

    I have had to speak up more at work. When something is really wrong, I report it. I get legal advice when needed. I have joined a program that can help people like me. It costs $17 or so a month, but it is like legal insurance should you ever need it. I recommend that scapegoats get a service like this to protect themselves while in the workplace. It has free or low cost services and advice.

    I am going through a process with the EEOC right now that I can’t comment on. But, I must say, it is liberating to finally fight back and to know where to go if you are bullied or harmed on the job. It is illegal to be bullied at work, but it is is only illegal if you speak up about it and are harmed b/c you did that. If you do not speak up, you will not be protected. Most states have an agency that will help scapegoats.

    My best advice is to document, speak to legal professionals along the way and go along with the process. Always do your job and keep your wits about you. Know that it will be ok and believe that justice will prevail. Just because you were scapegoated doesn’t mean that you deserve to lose your job or to be bullied. Some people in workplaces are just really good at picking out vulnerable people. Those are the types of people who should be afraid, not us. There are laws in place to protect us. Never forget that.