Dealing with workplace bullying

While we primarily think of bullying as something that happens to children in the schoolyard, it is, unfortunately, something that many people continue to experience as adults. Being bullied at work can leave us feeling helpless, disempowered, and fearful, and may result in sleep disturbances, deteriorating relationships, depression, and increased risk of suicide.

While around 10% of Australian workers admit to be being bullied at work, research suggests that up to two-thirds may be experiencing unfair treatment in the workplace. Fear of repercussions, dependence on our income, and a lack of clarity around what is fair or acceptable means many people stay silent, either putting up with poor treatment or simply leaving their jobs.

The broadly accepted definition of workplace bullying in Australia is ‘repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety’ (Fair Work Act 2009).

Given how much time most of us spend at work, the discussion on how to deal with this is an important one.

Sarah’s story

Recently, a friend of mine (let’s call her Sarah) spoke to me about her experience.

As a leader in her new workplace, Sarah started witnessing bullying and harassment behaviours and patterns. Higher management spoke to employees (particularly female and foreign staff) in ways that were discriminatory, belittling, or downright insulting. Employees were demoted, isolated, and undermined when they spoke up on these issues, and those who didn’t fall into line faced repercussions and were spoken about in derogatory ways when not present.  

Empowered, enthusiastic staff were becoming disengaged, withdrawn and leaving the business. Sarah realised that this behaviour was in the company’s culture, and it trickled down into every professional relationship and interaction. She talked to the senior leaders about what she saw and they dismissed her: they didn’t see it, there wasn’t a problem, it was a one-off instance, or it hadn’t been meant that way.

And each time she spoke up, she found herself the subject of increased focus on her failures, dismissal of her ideas, and minimisation of her accomplishments. She was removed from teams and projects, and spoken about negatively behind her back.

What can you do about it?

‘You have to be true to yourself’ said Sarah.

No job, no workplace, no income is worth feeling belittled, unsafe, and mistreated.

Like all forms of abuse, it’s important to remember that you are not at fault, and you never ‘deserve’ to be bullied. Don’t internalise other people’s bad behaviour as a personal failing.

Sarah suggested five steps that helped her maintain her sense of self and mitigate the impact of her workplace bullying.

1. Know your values

2. Remember your value

3. Hold your boundaries

4. Create and maintain a self-care routine

5. Be clear on what works for you

Some people like to debrief with a close friend at the end of the day, others like to switch off and do something else entirely. Keep track of what keeps you feeling positive and energised and what doesn’t, and keep refining your self-care techniques.

Make sure your coping strategies are adaptive. Drinking a bottle of wine or devouring an entire pizza is a valid strategy from time to time (hey, we all do it!), but if you’re doing it every night, you might find it’s not particularly helpful in the long run.

If you’ve found relief with meditation, exercise, breathing techniques, affirmations, journaling, or creative activities in the past, you might want to see if you can incorporate those into your self-care routine now.

Take notes

Taking action not only eases anxiety and helps you feel in control, it may help you down the track if the situation needs to escalate.

Make notes of incidents immediately after they happen, including who else was present, and save emails and messages in a safe place. As tempting as it is to delete these things, they may be important, and compiling them now means you don’t have to go through everything again later.

Try not to retaliate or create situations that can be used against you. Vent to people who are not connected to your workplace. If the message does need a response, keep it factual and neutral. If you’re feeling emotionally charged, save your response as a draft and only send it after rereading it later—preferably the next day.

Take action

You may not want to raise the issue formally with your employer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take positive steps to improve your situation.

Build a network of allies for support, including people in and outside your workplace.

Inform yourself about your rights and your employer’s obligations. Being knowledgeable is empowering, can improve your confidence, and may in itself discourage bullying behaviour.

Remember that if you do take official action, you may be preventing workplace bullying for countless employees that come after you. Remember also that if you choose to change teams or find another position, you are engaging in self-care and that decision is equally as valid.

Getting support

For advice on what to do in your situation, there are a number of organisations you can contact for safe, confidential advice. These include Fair Work Australia, Safe Work Australia, the Australian Human Rights Commission, your union if you’re a member of one, or a lawyer.

You may also wish to seek emotional support for your journey through whatever steps you decide to take. If you could benefit from a supporter to help you maintain your confidence and self-worth, get in touch with us today for a free consultation call to discuss how we can help.