Erin (she asked Global News not to share her real name for fear of professional repercussions) has worked in media for years, but the bullying she experienced at her last job pushed her to her limits.
The 39-year-old said her boss would frequently talk down to her and other employees, and would get very upset if someone made a mistake. The toxic environment caused her to feel anxious at work, and made her question if she was capable of doing her job.
“My stomach was in knots when I went to work,” she said. “I was terrified.”
Sadly, Erin’s experience is not unique.
“[Bullying] has become a North American problem,” said Fiona Bryan, a Toronto-based career coach and corporate consultant. “The percentage of how many people will quit [their job] because they’ve been bullied is huge.”
What does workplace bullying look like
According to the Government of Canada, bullying in the workplace is defined as “acts or verbal comments that could ‘mentally’ hurt or isolate a person.” A bully will typically carry out this harmful behaviour repeatedly, as the point of bullying is to “intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people.”
At work, bullying can include spreading rumours, making belittling comments, causing physical harm, undermining a person’s work, excluding someone from things like meetings, and yelling or using profanity.
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Bryan said that when someone is being bullied in the workplace, it’s common for them to dread heading into the office, and feel physically sick.
“If you’re throwing up, mentally or physically, before you have to start a week, you know there’s a high amount of mental stress,” she said.
How bullying affects your well-being
When Erin was working under her bullying boss, she said she started to question her capabilities as an employee, and felt as if she could get fired at any moment. The negative experience affected her self-esteem, which stuck with her even when she left the office.
“It makes you not want to work there,” Erin said. “It makes you not want to approach this [bullying] person and deal with all that stuff.”
Bryan is not surprised that when people are bullied, they start to question themselves. It’s the objective of bullies, after all, to exert power over others.
“We will not push ourselves professionally because we won’t have the self-esteem or confidence,” she said. “Outside of work, you won’t want to do much. You’ll [spend your time] venting to your family and friends.”
The difference between bullying and constructive feedback
When Jamie (she asked Global News not to share her real name to protect the identity of colleagues) worked in a health care centre outside of Toronto last year, she witnessed tension between two co-workers — people she both got along well with independently.
The two female colleagues did not see eye-to-eye, and often had disagreements over workloads. Jamie said that one of the women reported to management that she was being bullied by the other colleague.
This was challenging for Jamie, as she wasn’t sure that the woman was, in fact, being bullied.
“I don’t know if I would have said it was truly bullying, but sometimes when you disagree over a professional decision, and people take that personally, then it’s perceived as bullying and that you’re always attacking that person for what they’re doing,” she said.
“That’s where things in my office got awkward.”
Bryan said that the difference between common work problems and bullying is the nature and frequency of the behaviour. Offering direct constructive feedback on a project is one thing, but talking negatively about that project to every other person on the team is another.
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If you’re not sure if you’re being bullied, Bryan said it can be helpful to notice if other people also spot the questionable behaviour. While she doesn’t suggest talking about the problem with everyone, turning to a colleague you trust can help you figure out if it’s in your head, or rooted in reality.
“If anybody else is recognizing that you’re being left out of meetings, or being picked on … it can [mean] it’s a very personal thing,” she explained.
What to do if you’re being bullied
When you’re being bullied, it’s easy to feel powerless, but Bryan said it’s important to protect yourself and suggests a “two-pronged approach.”
First, Bryan said you need to document any evidence of bullying. This can include emails, notes from conversations and meetings, and dates and times of harmful interactions.
She also suggests keeping a journal where you make notes about the experiences, which will also help you process some of your feelings. Because bullying can be mentally taxing, Bryan said it’s important to focus on the evidence and try not to let emotion distract you from the facts.
“Once you’ve got concrete examples where you have dates and times … who was involved, all that documentation, then I would go to the highest person you can, and take in that document and have it ready to present and say, ‘I believe I have a significant problem,’” Bryan said.
“With facts and with documentation, [workplaces] have a legal responsibility as an employer to provide you with a safe working environment, and that means psychologically safe as well.”
But, there are also instances where work environments are so toxic that it’s in your best interest to leave. In these cases, Bryan said it’s important to devise an exit strategy, and try to leave on good terms.
Even if you don’t have a chance to confront the bullying, it often has a way of catching up with people.
“The way that bullies often find out that they’re bullies is not by direct discipline; it’s when they go and try to get a job somewhere else and nobody will take their call, and nobody will hire them or give them a reference.”