The Bully at Work – Mental Health under attack (PART 1)

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Mental health is really coming under the spotlight and even David Cameron has said that not enough has been done to end the stigma surrounding it and provide for treatment.  The extent of the problem is being estimated as one in four of us facing some kind of mental ill health in the coming year. Cameron has also pledged an extra £1bn by 2020 to be thrown it at the issue. 

However, in all the reports being released over the past few days, there have been no mentions of the root causes of, or contributory factors to mental health problems being addressed.  What should happen when we are subjected to mistreatment that causes issues with our mental health?  The emotional impact suffered by victims of crimes is well understood, but what if the emotional injury is the assault?

One such example, more worrying prevalent than many know about or care to admit, is workplace bullying.  Is it being taken seriously enough for the part it plays in damaging the mental health of working adults across the country?  We would all know how to respond to a manager physically assaulting a member of staff, but it isn’t so easy to work out what to do when you know that a bully’s behaviour is causing or significantly worsening an employee’s mental health problems.  Worse still is that bullying is all about power – bullies pick on the weaker targets and so people with, or who may be prone to, mental health issues can become prime targets.

An increasing number of employers have a discrete anti-bullying policy, or their HR departments are more informed about the procedures to follow when issues arise.  Trade unions report higher numbers of members seeking help with workplace bullying, and slowly but surely more is being done to hold bullies to account within larger companies.  However, being empowered to seek help when in smaller settings is an entirely different matter.  Fearing the loss of a job, this can lead people to choose to suffer the treatment as a lesser evil than unemployment.  But is this really true in the long term?

So how do we categorise or describe what bullying looks like?  The mental health charity, MIND, describes it as:

“Workplace bullying is more than someone being bossy and occasionally having an angry outburst about work targets. It is when someone persistently acts towards you in a way that hurts, criticises or victimises you. They can be quite obvious – shouting or swearing or humiliating you in front of colleagues; or more underhand – constantly criticising you, isolating you from colleagues, spreading malicious rumours about you or blaming you whenever things go wrong.”   Mind.org.uk

Does that mean that a workplace bully is guilty of causing a mental health injury?  A deliberate psychological attack surely deserves no less stringent consequences than a physical one.  Mental injury is something that is recognised in law in various situations, and under the Health and Safety Act the management of stress in the workplace is a legal responsibility of employers.  If we wish to address mental health in society, perhaps it is time we started taking a much greater stance against bullying in the workplace.

Unless you have experienced the relentless targeting from a bully it is hard to describe what it feels like, but it is easy to understand that stress levels increase, anxiety can take hold, and depression can creep in.   Any layman might point out it is counter-productive to debilitate your own workforce?  Well, indeed it is – but that is not on the in mind of the bully, whose main focus is their own power rather than the success of business.  It is a way for them to fulfil their own needs to feel powerful.

One of the earliest signs of workplace bullying is when a manager starts to adopt the model of public-general-praise verses private-specific-attack.  Reinforcing statements of success become general, non-committal and begrudgingly stated praise for the team. At the same time, private conversations out of earshot begin to increase where accusations and threats can be delivered and easily denied should a complaint come to surface. 

If we wish to address mental health in society, perhaps it is time we started taking a much greater stance against bullying in the workplace.

Public outbursts are reserved for times when the “everyone was under pressure” excuse can be used as a cover.  Over exuberant negative criticism of menial tasks and statements of failure increase – as do instances when simply too much work is assigned so the victim’s failure to meet deadlines becomes inevitable.  Moreover, these are often used to make the victim look incompetent, unreliable and deserving of criticism they receive.  After all – they’re holding back the team, aren’t they?

The end result is often a pattern of increased sickness and absence from work, which is then used as further excuse to target the individual.  The cycle continues until the employee has been forced to take long-term leave or resign from their job completely.

By which time, they might well have also resigned their mental health, too.

Part 2 Coming Soon