In one of my past management jobs, I was bullied every day. One particular co-manager took pleasure in making my life torturous. At work, when nobody else was in our section, he would kick the partition between our offices over and over, and yell curses at me. In the wee hours of the morning, he would call my cell phone at home and shout at me when I eventually woke up and answered. It became so routine that even on nights when he did not call, I would bolt awake with a thumping heart, certain that the phone was ringing again.
Because I was one of the few women at my level, and because I was among the youngest on the team, I was determined to be tough. I did not want anyone to perceive me as weak, so I told nobody. Only my husband knew. He would sit up after the calls woke him, hold my hand, and try to help me go back to sleep. On evenings when I got home, seeing his face would cause me to cry from the relief of putting the day of work behind me. I refused to leave the job – I would not run; I would not quit. At work, I pretended to be thick-skinned and I would laugh and make jokes, especially when my bully was around. I refused to give him the satisfaction of knowing his tactics were hurting me.
Slowly, I lost the joy I felt in doing work that fulfilled me. I felt constantly stressed and hypersensitive. I felt perpetually sad and isolated. I started to get sick often. I wouldn’t tell my husband about my day when I got home because I could not bear to relive the horrors I had endured. The only time I could forget about my work pressures was when I was sleeping, so I hid from my problems by sleeping more. As a result, he felt like I would not entrust him to help me cope, and we began growing apart. After more than a year of this, I became very ill at work, and severe digestive problems were diagnosed. I was put on medication, and told that the symptoms would persist.
My digestive problems disappeared a year after I left that job, and I realised that extreme job-related stress had caused my illness. I have had other stressful jobs since then, but I have learned how to handle stress better. I am much older now, and I see how much the younger me did not know, and did not do. Here’s what I have learned, in a nutshell. It’s not just a to-do list about how to cope with being bullied, but I think many points in this list can help with that.
- Understand the main driver for bullying: establishing power. My bully was pounding away at me, probably because something about me was threatening to him. Maybe for him it was that I was female, or too young to have risen to a management role, or too confident, or performing too well. Whatever it was, bullying me was likely about getting me to give up my own power in deference to him.
- Don’t let a bully isolate you, as isolation takes away your power. Share what is happening with others in the workplace, and work within your support community to disempower your bully. This is also good since the bullying may also be directed at others, unknown to you.
- Craft a well-rounded life for yourself. No one aspect should be the be-all and end-all for you. Instead weave every aspect like a thread in the fabric of your life. Don’t get so caught up in your job that your family relationships fade, or your friendships erode. Also, set aside “me-time” to keep up with hobbies, self-development, or other things that you value. If you do not take care of yourself, all the other things in your life will suffer.
- Don’t pretend to be less than you are, in order to avoid being noticed. Sometimes, people may tell you not to stand out so much, in order to avoid being picked on. I was told to lower my standards in order to become more of an average performer. I say that’s bad advice! Always be your true self, even if that makes you shine brightly and attract attention. You are likely to be unhappy if you are not showing your true colours.
- Put a stop to the bullying. Know that formally involving management (including, but not limited to, HR) is a powerful option. Find out your company policy on bullying. Speak with others, maintain documentation, and lodge a formal report. If, as in my case, you do not feel that a formal route is viable, then you may choose to leave the job.