Bullying: the warning signs and regaining control

Melissa Cliffe

Melissa Cliffe

UKCP psychotherapist Melissa Cliffe is a UKCP psychotherapist and blogger who works with individuals on a range of issues, including midlife, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and more.

It is estimated that nearly a third of people experience bullying at work (TUC poll 2015). Bullying can happen to anyone, at any level of an organisation, and from any walk of life.

Whilst bullying can take the form of physical aggression, in the workplace it is more likely to be psychological and just as damaging. With more communication happening online – via email, smartphones, social media groups – people are increasingly targeted via cyber bullying which means that it continues outside of the workspace.

Identifying Bullying

Bullying is not always easy to recognise as it is often subtle and corrosive. Bullies aim to undermine others by hurting them physically or emotionally in order to make themselves feel better.

Under the Equality Act 2010, harassment is described as unwanted conduct related to one of the following: race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. Bullying tends to exploit these differences; in the workplace differences often revolve around hierarchy and power.

Bullying is defined by ACAS, a workplace advisory organisation, as ‘any unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended.’

Some examples of bullying are:

  • Unfair treatment
  • Physical assault
  • Exclusion – from meetings, social events, projects
  • Unfounded threats regarding job security
  • Sharing information that criticises an individual or group with irrelevant parties e.g. appraisals, emails
  • Spreading rumours
  • Setting impossible targets and deadlines
  • Unwelcome sexual advances, decisions made on the basis of these being accepted or rejected
  • Teasing, name calling and ridicule
  • Blocking opportunities for advancement e.g. promotions, training
  • Misuse of power
  • Posting compromising or humiliating photos or footage online
  • Repeated offensive texts or messaging
  • Sharing private information without permission
  • Gaslighting – manipulation which makes you question your version of reality

The impact of Bullying

Bullying can have a devastating impact. On an organisational level it can cause demoralisation, absenteeism and compromise productivity. On an individual level, it causes stress.

Prolonged bullying can lead to depression, burn-out, anxiety, low self-esteem and sometimes even suicide. The very nature of bullying often leaves people feeling isolated as they try to maintain a veneer of normality. Over time individuals may believe it is their fault and feel too ashamed to tell anyone. It can have a physical impact too – disturbed sleep, headaches, frequent minor infections, low libido, palpitations and change in appetite.

What you can do

Bullies rarely go away on their own. Occasionally they leave or are relocated elsewhere, sometimes they are confronted or exposed. In most cases doing nothing means their behaviour continues. Here are some suggestions to consider:

Name it – Firstly, identify that the bullying is real and recognise it for what it is. Go through the checklist and see how much you recognise.

Talk to someone – Tell someone you trust, maybe a good friend, partner or colleague.

Avoid being alone with the bully – Bullying often happens when others can’t see, limiting time alone with them can reduce incidents and increase the likelihood of others witnessing.

Gather evidence – Keeping a record of incidents in a journal has two benefits:

  • It builds evidence that may be useful in a tribunal should you wish to pursue that route;
  • It allows you to express your feelings and has a cathartic effect.

Get informed – Find out your organisation’s policy on bullying and how they handle complaints. For impartial advice you can speak with ACAS.

Raise the issue – Share your concerns with your manager (if they aren’t the bully), another trustworthy senior person or HR.

Confront the bully – This choice is not for everyone and if it sounds too distressing, it is better to find an alternative approach. If you choose to do this, ensure you have sufficient support in place, be firm rather than aggressive and stick to the facts. Be clear about what you don’t like and what you want to change, sometimes people don’t realise the impact that their manner or behaviour has on others and feedback can be helpful. Don’t try to play the bully at their own game.

Psychotherapy – A therapist can support you to navigate the situation, process painful feelings, reflect, learn and encourage healing and recovery. They may also help you to understand any behavioural patterns that might make you vulnerable to bullying so that you are more equipped to recognise warning signs and can protect yourself better in future. If you are interested in pursuing psychotherapy then you can find a UKCP accredited therapist near you by visiting their find a therapist search

If you or someone else is struggling with bullying, you can find support here:

In an emergency, call: 999

NHS (England), call: 111

NHS Direct (Wales), call: 0845 46 47

The Samaritans 24 hour helpline, call: 116 123

For resources and advice visit: Mental Health at Work, the ACAS website or the Anti-Bullying Alliance website

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