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  Resolve workplace conflict and bullying

“Weekends aren’t too bad. Saturday is the best, though it’s due more to the relief of not having to get up early and go to work. My wife says I’m a different person on Saturday, less agitated, less likely to fly off the handle and explode at either her or the kids. Sunday comes, and by the early afternoon all I’m thinking of is the fact that tomorrow, I start another five days of hell. Around dinner time, it starts to kick in once more, the feeling of anxiety and panic. I tell my wife of what’s likely to happen tomorrow and it’s all bad. She has heard it so many times now and generally leaves me to it, either going out for a few hours (I don’t know where to) or locking herself in a room. I’m not an idiot – I know she’ll walk out on me at some stage, probably would’ve done so ages ago if it wasn’t for the kids…”




Personnel Today magazine estimates that bullying in the workplace costs employers more than £2bn per year in sick pay, staff turnover and lower productivity. This fact is astonishing when we consider that there is supposed to be protection under law, and procedures in place within most companies, to deal with the problem of bullying.  Why, then, are  so many people still suffering and what can they possibly do to help themselves when the most obvious recourse, to report the offender/s to the relevant authorities within the workplace, is not a viable option.


“The journey into work begins and the feeling of nausea and sickness starts to overcome me. Occasionally, I need to jump off the tube at the next station, rush up the escalator, race through the ticket barrier and, when I’m at a safe distance, physically throw up. My wife and friends are always going on at me to leave, find another job, start on a lower salary if need be but they don’t understand. I love the work I do, so why give him the satisfaction of handing in my notice? He would have won, then, wouldn’t he? Besides, without a good reference, which only he is in a position to give, I probably won’t get taken on anywhere else. There are loads of IT techies out there, particularly since the recession. Competition is tough at the best of times. I have been advised by colleagues to speak to Personnel, lodge a complaint but I’m sure that will only make matters worse…”



Grievance procedures

Even though there are alternatives to going down the grievance procedure route, which we will discuss later, it is definitely worth considering, no matter how weak such procedures may seem within your company. There are two reasons for this. First, it may actually work and put a stop to the bullying altogether. Secondly, if things start getting so out of hand that you are, for example, “constructively” dismissed as a result of the conflict, it will be extremely difficult getting anywhere with an Employment Tribunal if it is known that you did not follow your company’s existing grievance procedures, however inadequate they may be. Should you decide to take this course of action, it is important to consider the following factors:

Have you kept accounts of meetings or exchanges in which you or your professional competence were verbally attacked? This includes dates, times, locations and witnesses to any slur on your character or doubts about your ability to do your job. Have you kept copies of annual appraisals or any positive feedback (usually by email) that you have received from others that show your competence in any given situation? Are you absolutely sure that you have a full understanding of your job description? Are your responsibilities in line with it? Would other colleagues (preferably more senior to you) be prepared to support you and insist that there is nothing wrong with your work? Are you physically and emotionally up to following through with a grievance procedure?

If you get nowhere with this undertaking and decide, after all, to leave the job claiming constructive dismissal, it is crucial that you first seek legal advice (in this instance, the Citizens Advice Bureau is a good place to start). Constructive dismissal can be difficult to prove and former colleagues who were prepared to offer support whilst you were working at the company will be far less inclined to do so once you have left.


“I know he has constantly undermined my work to others, colleagues have said as much. When we have a systems crash or the server goes down, he’ll blame me. He never hesitates to fly off the handle and say I’m lucky to have a job, that junior staff half my age have a better understanding of how a systems network operates. He finds fault with virtually everything I do, and enjoys taking it out on me in front of other people. I’ve tried to reason with him, become friendly with him but he ignores any such advances. Most colleagues don’t want to be seen having anything to do with me in case they’re tarnished with the same brush. They fear for their jobs also. I’ve often asked myself why he doesn’t just fire me if I’m so bad at my job? But that’s an unlikely scenario. He actually enjoys making my life a misery…”


Psychological profile of the workplace bully

In almost every instance, the origins of the workplace bully’s behavior lies in his or her childhood. The founder of Individual Psychology, Dr. Alfred Adler (1870-1937) believed that the typical adult bully was always discouraged as a child to fully express his emotions and feelings. Whatever he tried to do to impress his parents was never good enough. He was constantly criticized and made to feel totally inadequate. Inevitably, he would have suffered emotional and probably physical abuse. He never got what he felt he deserved from others, and hated being a follower (he may well have been a first-born whose siblings surpassed him in leadership)

He is likely to have failed in his efforts to belong by achieving fairness, and so decided, at an early age, to even things up by hurting others as he felt he had been hurt. This hurt has carried on into adulthood. The basis of his bullying, therefore, is revenge.

The bully is essentially a weak, uncertain individual nursing a massive inferiority complex. He enjoys picking on people to compensate for his inadequacies, in the hope of achieving some kind of superiority. The bully knows, however, that in doing so it does not actually make him superior but hopes that he can appear that way to others.


“I simply don’t know what to do. I don’t feel I can trust anyone at work to help me. He is very highly regarded by senior staff, and appears polite and courteous to almost everyone else apart from me. I feel so helpless and confused. Maybe I should get out and concede defeat, face the consequences. I just can’t think straight anymore. I tell my wife that I’m turning into a nervous wreck but she disagrees. You already are one, she says.”


What to do

The first thing to ask yourself is whether the job is actually worth fighting for? Because, when you are dealing with persistent bullying, that is exactly what you are doing – fighting for your job, your livelihood and the financial benefits that it brings. If you know you can get suitable and rewarding employment elsewhere, start the interview process, get a letter of acceptance from your new employer and leave. The problem will instantly disappear and yours, and your family’s, peace of mind will immediately return. You may still feel hurt and anger by what has happened to you but do not make this an issue. One way to help smooth over such feelings once you have left the company is to write a detailed, passionate letter to the directors or senior decision-makers within your (now previous) company explaining that you were forced out of a job you “loved” in an organisation you “deeply admired” and felt “proud working for” by this particular person’s malicious behaviour. It can’t do any harm and will give you immense satisfaction. It may even have quite an effect!

More often than not, however, your career path and the benefits of staying put means that you need to think out a careful strategy to deal with the bully before you go down the grievance procedure route.

What you first need to learn as a matter of urgency is to “compartmentalise” the problem. Keep it in the workplace if at all possible - try as best as you can not to bring the problem home with you. The problem starts when you walk out the door each morning and ends when you walk back through the door each evening. The bully is already hurting you – REFUSE to let him also hurt your loved ones. Have ten minute “de-briefs” with your wife, husband or partner  each evening to keep her/him up to date with what’s happening at work, but do not discuss the problem on weekends. Get your weekends back off the bully – he no longer has the right to take them from you! YOU are now in charge of the situation at home, not him.

Learn the basics of self-relaxation. This technique is summarised in the Stress Management section of our site but for convenience-sake, we repeat it here:

Next time you are in a stressful situation, try, if convenient, to remove yourself for just a few minutes and find a place where you will not be disturbed (you are least likely to be interrupted if you are situated in a toilet cubicle, by the way) Try the following:

Choose a focus word, an uplifting phrase or a sentence that makes
you feel good about yourself

Close your eyes

Relax your muscles

Think of a scene or a place you have visited in the past where you have felt particularly at peace. This may be a tranquil scene from nature, a beautiful beach or river etc. Focus on this scene and imagine yourself being there.

Breath slowly and naturally while repeating your focus word/phrase
silently as you exhale

Assume a passive state by dismissing any random thoughts that come to mind

Continue for around five minutes

Don’t stand immediately. Open your eyes and sit for another
minute before rising

You will feel a lot less tense, and much more in control, when you walk back into the situation you have temporarily removed yourself from.

Try to keep a balanced diet during this period of conflict and avoid excessive alcohol or drug use. You need to be at the peak of your work performance, avoiding as many mistakes as you can – they will only attract the bully’s unwanted attention. Try to maintain a sense of humour (one of our clients visualised her bully as wearing a clown’s costume and sporting a dunce’s hat)

There is no harm in having one last try at convincing him to back down and re-examine his behaviour. Ask for one last meeting (if you have not done so already) and explain to him how his actions are having such an adverse effect on you. Tell him how it is harming your family, your health and your overall well-being. Ask him how he would feel if he was in your situation, facing such hostility on a daily basis. Ask him how it would affect his family. This approach has a 1:5 chance of succeeding. 20% of bullies generally back off at this stage. Let us assume, however, that it has no effect.

Remember, as previously stated, to keep a record of all incidences and conflicts and to follow the actions as outlined above in the event of having to go through an internal grievance procedure.

In future dealings with the bully, adopt assertive language and behaviour. Here are a few examples (for a bit of fun, let’s call the bully “Gordon”)

Example: A problem has arisen which needs urgent attention. Gordon shouts at you, for all to hear, screaming that it’s your fault.

Response: “Gordon, I do not appreciate being shouted at in front of my colleagues. Let’s solve the problem in hand now. Later, we can sit down and see who’s to blame”

Example: Gordon ridicules you in front of your colleagues. It is malicious and unwarranted.

Response: “Gordon, do not ridicule me in front of my colleagues. If you have a particular issue with me, why don’t we sit down together and discuss it.

Example: Gordon tells you that your work is poor, that you are “letting the side down” He does this in front of your colleagues.

Response: “Gordon, I completely disagree with your comments. They are unfair and untrue. Also, I’m not impressed that you have decided to air your biases in front of my colleagues. Why don’t we go to one side and discuss your comments in more detail”

This course of action, whilst not in itself having any guarantee of causing the bully to back down, will achieve two things. First, you will gain respect from your colleagues that you have stood up to him. Secondly, it will make the bully think twice about picking on you in public. This can only be to your advantage

Always keep in mind the psychological profile of the bully. He is not a person to be frightened of or be intimidated by. See him as he really is, a deeply flawed individual who does not even deserve your contempt – only your pity.

If you have no other choice than to go down the grievance procedure route, do not warn the bully in advance. This will give him enough time to fabricate any evidence that he feels will help him with his case. Do not tell your colleagues either for if word slips out, things will get even more awkward. Gather everything you need, bind it in one document, and pass it to Personnel (keeping copies for yourself, obviously)

One final thing to remember. What you are experiencing is a sequence of events locked in a particular moment in time. No matter how bad the experience is, it will be resolved. The memory you have of this unpleasant period will diminish more and more as time goes by. As such, it makes no sense to let it get you and your loved ones down.

This article is © 2011 North London Stress Management Centre

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