You know when you left school and moved into the world of work, did you think that adults will be more understanding? And well, more grown-up? I did. I was bullied at school, an area of my life that I’m still unable to go into great details about. It’s still painful. And I had no idea that 20 years on from the month I had to move schools, I’d be revisiting the word again. This time, in a different context. AND at work. I’ve realised that adults can be subtle. They can be clever. They are very good at hiding unfavourable treatment against colleagues, covering it up and finding excuses.
If a child told us they were being bullied, we’d tell them to speak to a teacher, parent or other trusted adult. We’d encourage them to speak out and offer reassurance that they aren’t alone. There are organisations like Anti-Bullying Pro providing support and advice for children and young people who are bullied and we’ve recently had Anti Bullying week, bringing bullying into the media and encouraging young people to talk and campaign. I went through mediation as a teenager with some of the girls who bullied me and I was given some leaflets about bullying when I went to the school nurse with an anxiety attack, (but that’s another story.) I didn’t feel short of people to turn to about the bullying I experienced as a young person, not that it was always dealt with appropriately, but at least I could talk about it. It was also impartial. The bullies mum wasn’t handling any disciplinary meetings at school or holding the mediation I went to. Imagine it though? You’ve just been through the horrendous and isolating experience that is bullying, and when a meeting is finally arranged to deal with it, you head into school to find the bullies mum sitting there, ready to kick off proceedings. It just wouldn’t happen would it? And their mum will surely try everything in her power to protect little Johny. No detentions this time around. It may not literally be the bullies mum holding grievance meetings at work but I’m sure you get my point.
What support do we get as an adult? Especially when we enter the workplace and expect bullying to be a distant memory? Following discussion with others, it seems, not a lot. Most people are unable to talk, for fear of losing their jobs and the damage to their professional reputation it may do. For these reasons I am unable to discuss the specifics of my situation, but I can say that workplace bullying and being forced into a grievance procedure destroyed years of carefully built up self-esteem. I went from a fairly happy and bouncy Alice, who thought she was on the cusp of finally ‘sorting herself out’ to someone who felt utterly broken. I started experiencing chest pains, a common anxiety symptom but something I have never had with my anxiety before. As you can imagine, the first time it happened I thought I was dying, so I constantly held onto my wrist to make sure I could still feel a pulse. Isn’t anxiety logic great? I experienced sleep problems, stopped seeing friends and found myself feeling tearful in the most bizarre or inconvenient of places. I was eventually prescribed beta blockers to help me get through meetings and to prevent things from jeopardising the other work I do. It was during an anxiety attack WHILST HAVING A SMEAR TEST, when it was suggested I see a doctor about taking something for my anxiety, that had previously been pretty stable without medication for years. She was lovely, but I’m sure she could have done without dealing with me that day. Sometimes small talk isn’t helpful, or sometimes it is, whatever way you look at it.
I felt very alone dealing with this and quickly came to realise that grievance procedures are one-sided. They focus on looking after the organisation, and protecting peoples jobs, often conducted by senior managers who are on a damage limitation mission. Checking out how I was doing didn’t exist and I felt increasingly alienated during the process, as if I had done something wrong by speaking up. I felt so alone. Is it just me who goes through this? I hopefully trawled the internet for people who had been through it too. Am I the only one? I wondered. It was very late in the day when I finally used the words “bullying” to describe my situation. I didn’t relate what I was going through to the bullying I had experienced in the playground 20 years ago. I didn’t accept that it was a breed of the same thing. There is a stigma surrounding adults experiencing bullying and we are all forced into this strange silence. This is what I found online, very few people were able to speak out, very few people knew that there were others out there like them too and there was a lack of guidance from people who had experienced similar. The ACAS website was wonderful as was advice from my union rep, but during my lowest moments chatting to people who had been there too meant the most to me. I wanted to know what to expect from a grievance process, my anxiety detests uncertainty, but I found myself riding the waves very much alone. The only way I realised I wasn’t the only one was by speaking to people privately. This helped me realise that other people have been or are going through the same emotional turmoil. They too wondered if they should say something. They wondered about the process of taking up a grievance. We were all scared about what speaking out would do to our reputation, so often approached the subject cautiously. I’m part of a MANY but at the time I didn’t know this. This is why we need to change how we approach and talk about workplace bullying, to create a dialogue that will be helpful for everyone.
I decided to write this, because last night I read a petition started by Lucy Nichol and on doing so burst into tears. Her petition calls for more transparency and impartiality in workplace grievance processes. A change that will make it easier to challenge bad treatment and to feel supported in that decision. You can sign her petition here. Please do sign and share. I have never felt so strongly about a petition as I do with this one. There are too many of us who are unable to speak out, those unable to put the jigsaw pieces together to recognise their experiences as bullying and people who fear the stigma of admitting to such difficulties in the workplace. All on top of a massive taboo of dealing with mental illness at work. My experience is just one of far too many. It’s comforting to know this but devastating that others have to go through this too. If we work together to change how we tackle and view bullying at work, i’m certain we can make it better. No one should feel like they don’t have anywhere safe to turn.