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How To Deal With Workplace Bullying

Illustrated by Anna Sudit
Two years ago, I landed a dream internship at a magazine. I can still recall the sick feeling in my stomach as I stepped into the office every morning, my innards lurching and my mouth growing dry. I wasn’t nervous because my dreams were coming true, I was fearful of the day ahead because a colleague was harassing me.

A junior member of staff made it her quest to rip into my work, make horrible comments and try to exclude me socially whenever she got the chance. At first I ignored it, but recent family problems had left me feeling vulnerable, and I slowly soaked up her negativity. When I looked in the mirror, I began to see someone who lacked not only motivation but, as time went on, self-esteem.

I was too embarrassed to tell my friends that I was being bullied in the workplace. I thought, ‘Surely this is the kind of thing that only happens at school?’ When I did muster up the courage to speak out about what a miserable time I was having, to my surprise, it turned out I was far from alone. Some of my friends had experienced this misery too. In fact, according to a recent survey, 37% of people in the UK have been bullied at work, and a further 21% have witnessed it occur. A Norwegian study published this year even linked workplace bullying to an increased risk of suicidal thoughts.

I reached out to some fellow twentysomethings to find out about their experiences with workplace bullying. Chloe*, 23, was bullied in her job at a high-end retailer. "My manager was against me early on for no reason. She tried to get me permanently moved to another part of the store and would send me to do impossible tasks she came up with in the stockroom", she says. "One day she grabbed me and pulled me across the shop floor in front of customers, and she even hit another member of staff with a clothes hanger. Everything I did was met with hostile comments and damning critique, and nothing was ever good enough. I often spent my lunch break crying in the toilets. There was an atmosphere of fear and intimidation".

Last summer, 22-year-old Leah* from London began working at an interiors company. Initially the role seemed ideal her boss was accommodating, allowing her an afternoon off each week to attend therapy for long-term depression and anxiety. However, a group of older women in her office tried to intimidate her.

"They just wanted to stamp their authority over me,” explains Leah. “They would do stupid, petty things like go and make tea, and there would be an inch in my cup. They were all egging each other on. At first I thought, “I need to be quieter and more refined”, but then I realised that it wasn’t my problem that they didn’t like me. The final straw was when one of them told me off in front of some other employees when it wasn’t her place to do so”.

"Everything I did was met with hostile comments and damning critique, and nothing was ever good enough. I often spent my lunch break crying in the toilets."

I asked Dr Marilyn Aitkenhead – an occupational psychologist and owner of a firm which supports organisations in their leadership – whether there was something about millennials like Leah, Chloe and I that made us particularly susceptible to workplace bullying. While she hasn’t identified a clear link, she commented that the dominance of technology and social media often exacerbates such instances of harassment.

Dr Aitkenhead suggests a few helpful steps for people who are being bullied, to relieve the day-to-day stress. As well as speaking to someone outside of the office such as a counsellor or psychologist, she mentions the importance of building up personal resilience. “That’s reminding yourself that you’re good at solving problems, and you can deal with challenges pretty effectively. Bring up some memories of when you’ve done that, and specific times when somebody has enjoyed your company – when a friend has reached out to help you and when you’ve reached out to help a friend”.

I suggest the positive affirmations I memorised to help me through the day, and she agrees that the idea could be affective, adding that more visual people might prefer pictures of places, “or things that they like to do that are evidence of their prowess in something”.

If problems don't resolve naturally, Dr Aitkenhead suggests looking into dignity at work policies or taking out a grievance with your work's human resources (HR) department. Almost all employers have guidelines to follow when it comes to formally raising issues; this usually involves sending off a written complaint, before a meeting with a neutral party is arranged to try and rectify the issue. While you are in the process of doing this, the mental health charity, Mind, suggests that you avoid situations where you are alone with the person bothering you, or else record their behaviour/ save any emails that might be useful when making your formal complaint.
Failing all of this, I wonder: When is it time to quit? I explain to Dr Aitkenhead that my boss didn’t take my complaints very seriously and was reticent to get upper management involved, advising me to ignore the bullying. Chloe also told me that despite complaining to HR, she was ignored, because her manager was responsible for her department’s high revenue.

Dr Aitkenhead recommends doing a diagnostic of the power play. “If the equation doesn’t look like you can empower youself, leaving is the best option before too much damage is done to you psychologically”, she advises.

As you may have guessed, I left my internship. I felt like a failure, but I had been desperate for an escape, and found a counsellor to mull things over with. Even now, I get panicky when it comes to work, waiting for someone to decide that I’m generally incompetent.

As for Leah, her boss went “ballistic” when she tried to resign. “As well as wearing down my self esteem by telling me that no one would hire me because of my mental health issues, she told me I was essential to maintaining her business, so I felt trapped”, she adds. She went part time, before suffering a series of debilitating panic attacks and leaving for good. Despite her boss’s threats, she managed to find a new job soon after.
Chloe also left her job for a position at a different chain. She still has to visit her old workplace from time to time as part of her new job, however, and is on edge every time she returns.
Looking at the three of us – seemingly confident, outgoing twenty-somethings – you might not guess that we had all suffered at work due to bullying – a problem you’d hope would be left in the playground. However, we all agree that getting through it has been an achievement in itself.
“It was a terrible experience”, Chloe concludes. “But I'm much more prepared to deal with difficult people in the future. It’s only made me stronger”. However, it's important to remember that “difficult people” have no right to make you miserable, whether they're successful managers or cocky interns. Be proactive, try to improve the situation, consult legal help where applicable and – if all else fails – don't be scared to make a fresh start.

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

For more information on how to deal with bullying in the workplace, visit here.