Anger, frustration, self-doubt, sadness, and helplessness. If you are being bullied at work it will likely be one of the most challenging phases of your career. There are three options open to you: accept the bullying and do your best to protect yourself, fight the bullying, or move to another organisation or department. Unless you have a good reason to do so, staying where you are will take a toll on your mental health over the long-term. If you decide to fight the bullying you will need to gather your resources, recruit allies, have a plan B, know what your motivations are, and know when to walk away. For many people, moving to another position works out best for their own mental, physical, and financial well-being. Although it is not fair that you’re being bullied, no-one performs at the their best while sitting in a toxic quagmire.
To get where you want to be, first know where you are. What is your current state of mind? Are you in a position to see your situation objectively and rationally evaluate your options? If not, how can you get to that space?
If you have the option, it may be useful to take some time off to get a little rest and relaxation. You will have great difficulty thinking clearly while you are stressed and overwhelmed. This is explained well by the performance-anxiety curve (Yerkes–Dodson law). It looks a little something like this:
You need a little ‘activation’ to perform your best, but if you’re up the right side of the curve—over activated—your ability to think clearly is impaired. Taking some time off can help to reduce your level of activation and help you to think through your options clearly. If you can’t take time off, practice self-care and engaging in some relaxation strategies. Free relaxation apps are also an excellent place to start. Remember that you don’t have to relax completely, just move your anxiety one or two notches down on the curve. In the middle of the curve you still feel ‘activated’ but can think clearly and problem solve. A psychologist can help coach you through these techniques.
Now that you are thinking somewhat clearer, it’s time to work out where you are. What type of bullying are you experiencing? Who is it coming from? Is it a rogue manager or co-worker, a pervasive bullying culture, or a problem built into the structure of your organisation? The answers to these questions will give you an indication about the type of response you might receive if you make a complaint. But before you make a complaint…
Know your options. Up to 7 out of 10 people who are bullied are either fired or quit1. It might not be what you want, but if you were forced to quit, what would you do? Knowing your exit strategy at the begging takes the pressure off and makes it easier to evaluate your options.
People are often reluctant to quit because what is happening to them is unfair. And they are right. It is unfair but would be more unfair if you find yourself fighting it for the next six months, a year, or longer? Would it be more unfair if you lose your health, your ability to sleep, financial stability, confidence, and peace of mind? For some people, facing up to the injustice is more important than their personal well-being. I respect that. But if fighting the bullying is what you chose, realise what it can cost. It often doesn’t end well. Hence, 7 out of 10 people reading this will leave or be fired. It is a whole lot easier to interview for another job if you’re not in the middle of a bitter dispute with your last employer. There is wisdom in getting out while you can. The choice is yours.
Darius is a published author and registered clinical psychologist in private practice. He holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology and has worked as a trainer and adjunct lecturer in psychology and counselling. When he isn’t conducting or researching therapy he enjoys going on outdoor adventures with friends and abseiling off cliffs.