Sabrina, a spiritual leader, nurse, and mother of 4, with no history of emotional instability showed up at the emergency department and handed the triage nurse a note saying: ‘I am going to kill myself.’
When I first meet clients they are often ill, physically or emotionally. They may be suicidal. And their story is unbelievable; not always because it’s strange but sometimes because it seems so ordinary.
I’m talking about workplace mobbing; a collective attack, organised to undermine, shun, rebrand and oust an individual designated a threat. That it happens to nurses, social workers, civil servants, teachers and others who work in pleasant civilised surroundings makes it even more unbelievable.
Sometimes a mobbing (bullying at work) is arranged around a grandiose lie, so implausible it must be true, right? In other cases I hear about endless small slights, attempts to undermine work and humiliate workers. Taken individually they sound trivial; as a pattern of behaviour, these depredations make life a living hell.
If you listen to enough of these stories – which often sound unbelievable to everyone, including spouses, doctors, me and even the person telling it – patterns emerge.
Anyone can be mobbed at work, though targets are often chosen from ‘the nice, the vulnerable, the best and the brightest’. Or they may be the office bully. In the end, management fails and an irrational collective takes control.
Mae, a slim older woman, had to respond to a rumour that she was going to arrive at work with a Scottish battle axe to kill the secretary. She had never even seen a battle axe but her colleagues professed terror.
This may be why workplace mobbing may be one of the last forms of abuse where targets – men or women – are routinely disbelieved, and the problem minimised. And it’s not for failure to fight back.
Most of my clients are furiously engaged in official protests, human resource procedures, mediation, investigations and arbitration processes. These processes, intended to help, usually make things worse.
It happened to me. I fell to pieces, lost friends and months after leaving the organisation, had a stroke. If I am not careful, I can still go back and associate into that angry, paranoid and frightening place.
After the mob came for Brandon he lost 15 pounds, began to drink 4 or 5 beers at night and woke every morning at 5am feeling nauseous and exhausted. He often vomited in the parking lot outside the office.
This is not usually about a ‘bad’ person we label a bully, though aggressive individuals might be a cog in the machine. Bullying is a stigmatising word anyway, easily flung on anyone we don’t like or a tough boss.
And it may not be long until someone decides to call you the bully.
Where this gets horrifying is when everyone appears to be in on the persecution, including your closest friends.
Patrick dealt with the growing fear and depression by confiding in his best friend in the organisation. He later discovered his ‘friend’ treated confidences as intelligence, feeding them back to management.
Is this happening to you? If so, consider my suggestions for ‘first aid’:
- Workplace mobbing is not widely understood but well understood. As a phenomenon it is predictable. Read up on the topic. Look at the work of Heinz Leymann, Janice Harper, Maureen Duffy, Kenneth Westhues or Noa Davenport. This provides you with a strategic advantage and mitigates the surprise factor.
- Put your health first; see your health care provider and take care of the only body you have.
- Engage fully in your relationships outside of work. This is your most important protective factor; spouse, children, friends; it’s all good.
- Displays of emotion at work are problematic; you are going to be rebranded as mad or bad. We have good technology for managing out-of-control emotions. I am a fan of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) but many other approaches exist. Becoming locked in rage, anxiety or paranoia is one of the ways you let them win.
- Fighting the good fight? Guess what, you’re probably going to lose; in fact you will probably lose even if you win. This feels unfair but if you are like most people, you have to learn that for yourself. Cutting your losses before your health is irreparably harmed may be the right move. And I’m betting your significant other agrees with me.
Even if you leave it can take years to recover. Most of my clients would say that you never fully recover.
But there’s a big world out there. The majority of my clients, once freed of the ugly contrived reality of a dysfunctional workplace discover – if they learn from the experience and act resourcefully – something better is waiting for them.
Richard Schwindt M.S.W., R.S.W. is a social worker in Kingston, Ontario. He has been a social worker for 38 years, working in a variety of clinical settings in Toronto, Sioux Lookout and Kingston.
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