When The Workplace Is A Hell Place

Founder of Just Fight On, Jo Anne Brown, speaks exclusively to Care Appointments about bullying and harassment at work.

Bullying only happens to weak people. It only happens in school playgrounds. It’s just a ‘personality clash’. You get better results with ‘strong’ management.

Actually, none of these are true but just a few of the myths and excuses that stop workplace bullying being taken seriously and better understood. Bullying can happen to anyone and itÍs reported that each worker has a 50% chance of being bullied over their working life – and that one in five will be bullied at work right now. Or one in four depending on which study you plump for, but either way, it’s an alarming statistic for organisations and their employees.

The bad news for the public sector is that levels of bullying appear to be higher than in any areas of the private sector, according to a recent survey by Chartered Management Institute. Their survey also advises it’s getting even worse with 60% of managers saying bullying is on the increase.

A recurrent question is what exactly is bullying? Many victims donÍt even know what they are going through until a set of behaviours are described to them and they respond, yes, yes, yes, YES! Putting a name to something can help you to understand what youÍre trying to fight off – but in the case of bullying, sometimes it can also hinder you because of the myths.

What were talking about is unacceptable, and not something that happens because someone deserves it or ‘needs’ to be treated like that to do their job. Let’s face it, if someone isnÍt performing, then there are ways to manage – and ‘bullying’ isn’t ‘managing’. Bullying behaviours can be considered to be harassment, and depending on the reason for the act of bullying, could also be called discrimination in legal terms. Confused? Well, the behaviour for all three can be exactly the same and itÍs strange to think the other two can be taken far more seriously and are against the law.

For sake of the argument, I’ll just get on with it and refer to it as bullying from now on! {mospagebreak}

Bullying is a repeated negative behaviour towards another that causes distress or offence. It can include an abuse of power [for example removing work and staff to isolate you or changing your working hours or other conditions without adequate reason or notice], malicious rumours, verbal insults, specious criticism [can sometimes be persistent  nitpicking over small things], threats [about job security or violence], being undermined [setting someone up to fail, increasing workload]. That’s just a small sample of behaviours but a victim of bullying at work can experience all of these and more.

It’s the repeated pattern that disables, so insidious that most don’t realise what’s happening until it’s too late.

Kelly* found her boss’ nitpicking annoying. She was concerned that her responsibilities, such as ordering and teaching, were taken off her bit by bit; more startling were some of the inappropriate comments she faced during working hours. Her boss, Gaynor*, a theatre sister, didn’t like her size [although big herself], and said Kelly had an ‘unfortunate face’. She summed it up by saying she didn’t like her and wanted her to leave. Kelly was also told that leave of 8 weeks recommended by her consultant for a serious sinus problem, which needed a lumbar puncture and indicated a suspected brain bleed, was met with derision that it was a long time off for a ‘headache’.

Several incidents show how the workplace was affected by these problems – and because it’s the care sector, each incident potentially puts patients at risk. In theatre one day, Kelly joined the theatre team as the third patient of the day came in. Knowing the previous patient had only been scheduled for a local, Kelly was concerned that one of the gases was still on. She raised this but another colleague, Lynn*, tried to blame Kelly, even though she had not been in theatre with the first two patients. Another time, Kelly was blamed for not knowing anaesthetic equipment and found it on her performance report – even though they knew she hadnÍt been trained to do that job.

Rowena*, Kelly’s colleague, was being given Kelly’s responsibilities but felt uncomfortable about them, especially as she knew Kelly had more experience in teaching. Rowena complained to Gaynor that she wasn’t happy with how Kelly was being treated. Sadly predictable, things got worse for Rowena from then on. Neither Kelly or Rowena spoke to each other about the problems they were experiencing, each thinking they were the only one. Only when Kelly walked out after submitting a grievance did she tell Rowena, who promptly disclosed she too had put in a grievance. {mospagebreak}

Dealing with bullying effectively needs all complaints to be treated seriously and any investigations independent. While 83% percent of employers have a policy covering bullying and harassment, the practice is very different according to the casework of Just Fight On! – a voluntary organisation helping victims of bullying. They recommend a well thought out informal stage within the policy, including mediation as an option, as cases can be resolved quickly through this method and itÍs cost-effective. ItÍs far better to catch a conflict situation early but as time goes on, persistent, recurrent or malicious negative behaviour may not be so easy resolved because of the damage caused both to the working relationship and the health of the victim.

The main relationship reported between bully to bullied is a hierarchical one but itÍs important to know that bullying happens frequently between peers – maybe one trying to ‘do the other down’ so they get that next promotion? – and staff can be bullied and abused by patients or clients. A recent expose of client abuse within the nursing profession said 8 out of 10 had been assaulted or threatened and it was that bad a quarter considered leaving because of the dangers. Failing to tackle physical and psychological abuse on staff by clients negatively affects the working environment. It would follow that employment within the care sector is therefore rife for a culture of conflict because of inherent stressors.

Kelly and Rowena took out separate grievances but because they both related to the same person, the Trust treated them as a collective grievance; both were not allowed to stay in their own jobs and were redeployed, even though their Trusts’ policy states the bully should be moved. They were both told not to talk to each other, even though the people they complained about were not advised the same. The investigation into their case is typical, looking at each incident on their own, in isolation.

Bullying behaviour forms a pattern over time and itÍs important for organisations to assess it as such. It was only later that Kelly found out some of Gaynor’s supposed complaints to HR and a senior manager about her were specious. The threat of a grievance against someone is sometimes enough to silence dissent about behaviour or standards within the working environment – but not enough in this case. A later investigation agreed their case was not handled in the best possible way. Despite this, their case was not reopened and they still have no sense of closure.{mospagebreak}

The HSE Stress Management Standards are only voluntary but they have been shown to have a positive effect people, productivity and profits. Case studies are available on the HSE website at www.hse.gov.uk Get one of your company accountants [or hire a specialist consultant] to work out how much the bottom line might be suffering – and could benefit – from dealing with bullying and work-related stress effectively. Sell it to top management and once they know the scale, can any board seriously justify the impact on productivity, profitability and staff welfare to stakeholders?

Gone has the time when an organisation could ignore such complaints. Increased awareness and media coverage of bullying cases mean employees are more prepared to stand up for their principles, determined to see justice done because they know they’re not the only ones going through this. Of course there are stories in the press about the ‘compensation culture’ and employees jumping on the ‘stress at work’ bandwagon, but the majority of bullying complaints are genuine and not motivated by money.

It’s important for employers to understand what may placate an employee – a fair investigation, a cessation of the bullying, appropriate sanction if proven, financial recompense when there has been a loss of earnings – but also what may trigger the opposite. In short, here are some of the worst – victimising people for making a complaint, discouraging them from making one in the first place, covering up complaints and the problems that caused someone to blow the whistle on, biased investigations and blatantly not following policy and procedures.

Some organisations publicly back zero tolerance but actively discourage employees from reporting bullying or other abuse, whether itÍs from other staff or patients themselves. If genuine cases are not raised, heard or investigated properly, then an organisation canÍt expect their employees to feel they take it seriously and that itÍs worth coming forward. Vicarious learning may encourage others to behave in the same way if they see people bullying others, get away with it and often end up with a promotion! {mospagebreak}

In many organisations there is a lack of will to set an example and it’s a brave one that does. However, those organisations will reap the rewards to the bottom line because over time those who exhibit this behaviour and cause disruption and loss of productivity will be rooted out. 

Moves are being made to get organisations to be proactive in tackling bullying. The Dignity At Work Partnership aims to ‘encourage employee representatives and employers to build cultures in which respect for individuals is regarded as an essential part of the conduct of all those who work in the organisation’ Raising awareness is also necessary and the annual ‘Ban Bullying Day’ campaign is being held on 7th November this year. What will you be doing? If your organisation is not doing something, why not ask them to, even it’s only to find out how they deem bullying!

Bullying and harassment is a growing problem and one of the nastier sides of human nature. If a neighbour or problem ex displayed the same behaviour, the Police would be involved and there’s the benefit of ASBOs and restraining orders. Just because it happens within the workplace doesn’t make it more acceptable. At least, it shouldn’t. Once the impacts of bullying on health and relationships get more known, workplaces may one day come with a health warning! You may be lucky, it may not have affected you or a loved one yet, but the studies say how widespread it is. So, you have to consider if it’s not touching your life now, when?

*All names in this real case have been changed

Jo Anne Brown is the founder of Just Fight On!, a voluntary organisation helping victims of workplace bullying and abuse.

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