“I felt very unhappy and stressed every time an email would come in,” says Rachel. “My anxiety was building. It was affecting every aspect of my life, including my personal relationship. I was walking on eggshells all the time.”
Rachel was working in a senior position when she began to be bullied by a colleague higher up the organisation. “I started getting the feeling that something wasn’t right. I felt pressured and like I was being watched constantly and questioned a lot,” she says.
That led her to start doubting herself and, although previously very self-confident and self-assured, Rachel became increasingly withdrawn and isolated. She ended up severely depressed and anxious: “It took me several months to recognise the signs and acknowledge it.”
The 41-year-old, who is now self-employed, isn’t alone in her experience. According to a 2015 report by the TUC, nearly a third of people have been bullied at work, with women affected more than men. In nearly three-quarters (72%) of cases, the bully is a manager.
Daniel, 36, from London, says he was bullied by his boss, who used “unprofessional and rude” language in his performance review and would often make inappropriate personal remarks. “Once she invited me into her office and asked me a question,” he recalls. “When I responded, I was greeted with: ‘Ugh. Either a yes or a no would do’.”
Much like Rachel, Daniel says he wasn’t aware that he was being bullied at first. “I just thought she was there to do a job,” he explains. “But when I approached her about my own career progression, she took offence. For some reason my cards were marked and she made the next month or two extremely difficult. I’m a grown-up, I was good at that job, but she made me feel so worthless.”
Bullying can be linked to symptoms such as anxiety, headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, skin rashes, high blood pressure and, in extreme cases, thoughts of suicide. For Daniel, it resulted in him feeling “deflated, worthless and extremely stressed,” he explains. “It was a dark period. It’s hard not to take that with you, I still think about it several years later.”
Employers have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. If you’re being bullied at work or witness others being bullied, try and report it to your employer. In instances where the bully is your line manager, you can talk to HR or a more senior manager if that option is available.
Daniel recommends documenting everything: keep every email and make notes of any verbal comments. Christine Pratt, from the National Bullying Helpline, advises keeping a diary that references times, dates and circumstances of bullying incidents. “Your diary will constitute evidence at the end of the day and will help your employer investigate matters,” she explains.
This advice is echoed by the TUC’s guidance on what to do if you’re bullied at work. This also recommends considering speaking to the bully, if you feel able, and telling them you find their behaviour unacceptable and would like it to stop. You might also want to talk to a friend at work, and your union if you have one.
When Danielle, 51, from Galway, was in her late 30s, she worked in an “extremely toxic environment” where she suffered “constant” bullying from one of her colleagues. “It was psychological and emotional bullying and on one occasion a door was slammed behind me when I left the office she worked in.”
No steps were taken against her bully, and Danielle says she ended up feeling invisible within her workplace. “Although I spoke to the boss about it, I was told to play along with her and just pretty much allow her to dictate the way I did my job – which was destructive to the overall company in that it held up the project I was doing,” she explains.
“I became pregnant while working there, and it felt that ‘my hormones’ were seen as a reason for me being the way I was – which was just someone trying to do my job.”
It can sometimes be difficult to determine whether someone is behaving like a bully, or whether they are just being difficult. There are behaviours associated with bullying that seem more obvious, such as shouting at a colleague, spreading malicious rumours, or excluding someone from work activities.
But there are also more subtle actions like criticising colleagues even if they’re competent, taking away their responsibilities, or giving them trivial tasks. Some bullies undermine others either privately or in front of others, block their promotions, or set them up to fail by overloading them with work. Bullying can also include attacking someone’s professional or personal standing, or regularly making them the butt of jokes.
Recognising that you are being bullied can take some time. Rachel says she didn’t realise she was being bullied until after she’d resigned – and looking back, she wishes she had spoken to someone about what was happening. “Talk to someone you’re close to but also someone who can be objective,” she advises. “Maybe take leave or step away from the situation, so you can think about it carefully.”
Some names have been changed in this article.