by Glynis Sherwood MEd
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Targets often start to lose time from work due to stress and fear, undermining their reputation and income, which in turn increases their vulnerability.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Photo Credit: Hartwig HDK – Flickr
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Glynis Sherwood MEd, RCC, CCC, is a Counselling Therapist specializing in recovery from scapegoating, grief, anxiety, depression or addictive behaviors.