Stephen never dreaded work before. But then the founder of the charity he worked for began repeatedly shouting and swearing at him. Stephen felt “intimidated” in the office started hating going to meetings. Eventually, he ended up leaving his role and changing careers.
“The most striking thing was that this man could not see the impact he had on others,” explains Stephen (not his real name). “He surrounded himself with other men who were his mates, and marginalised anyone he disagreed with. It all reminded me of the men who have a good reputation as a pillar of a community - but behind closed doors the truth was much uglier.”
Stephen’s experience is not as unusual as you might think. Christine Pratt, founder of the National Bullying Helpline, says the helpline has seen an increase in calls from men looking for advice on workplace bullying, with calls now coming equally from men and women. In the three days prior to her talking to HuffPost UK, Pratt says it received calls from two office managers, a bank worker, a scientist, a scaffolder, and “numerous male teachers and NHS employees”.
People experience bullying from both managers and fellow colleagues, explains David Bartlett, national director of The Good Lad Initiative, which runs workshops in schools, universities and workplaces on the topic of masculinity.
“Bullying takes many forms: unfair and repeated criticism designed to undermine; withholding information; threats of making a complaint or revealing an embarrassing secret, or of demotion or sacking; intrusive checking up of everything you do; spreading false rumours; shouting and physical intimidation and violence,” he says. ”Nowadays it can also be via email or social media and it can follow you outside work.”
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On the one hand, toxic masculinity and the pressure to abide by “masculine stereotypes” can cause some men to become workplace bullies, Bartlett argues, as well as inhibiting others from reporting bullying. “Arrogant, insecure, entitled men will try to exert power over both men and women,” he says.
On the other hand, societal expectations of men mean they can sometimes feel like they need to be “strong” and try to cope with bullying on their own. “If you are being bullied, and have the feelings of fear and humiliation that can go with it, some men might feel ‘less of a man’, and worry that people will judge them or not take it seriously,” says Bartlett. “Bullying can stir up loads of other feelings, such as self doubt and sadness, which are hard to express for many men.”
Some men, particularly those working in male-dominated industries such as finance or construction, can attempt to “fit in” to avoid being identified as a target for bulling. But that risks becoming part of the problem, says Bartlett, allowing an intimidating environment to continue.
It’s not only male-dominated industries where men are reporting problems. The National Bullying Helpline has also seen an increase in calls from men who report being bullied by a female boss. But while some women bosses do treat their employees unfairly, Pratt suggests some men may feel bullied because they perceive certain behaviours differently when delivered by a woman.
“More and more women hold senior positions. Naturally, this means men find themselves reporting directly to a strong, successful, female director or CEO,” she says. From her experience of handling calls, she puts forward the idea that “some men may resent being performance-managed by women” and “find it extremely difficult to accept constructive criticism from a female line manager”.
Whether or not a manager’s behaviour is reasonable, feeling that it’s not possible to talk about perceived bullying can have a negative impact on mens’ mental health, says Simon Gunning, CEO of suicide prevention charity CALM. “We spend so much of our time in the workplace, so it’s crucial that people feel comfortable and supported by employers in what can be a very high-pressure and often stressful environment,” he argues.
CALM’s latest Masculinity Audit – which was produced in partnership with HuffPost UK – showed that 81% of men in employment saw their job as an important factor in their self-esteem.
There are positives to be taken from the growing number of men calling the National Bullying Helpline, says Pratt, who views the increase as a sign that men are opening up about emotional issues. “A decade ago, very few men would call us. Very often a wife would be completely oblivious of the fact that her husband was struggling with work-related issues. Men were simply reluctant to admit they needed help,” she says.
Pratt and her colleagues provide callers with general advice on how to handle bullying. The key messages are:
:: Do not resign.
:: Do not confront the perpetrator, particularly in a way that can be seen as intimidating.
:: Keep a diary.
:: If you talk to another manager, make sure the conversation is documented.
:: Seek the advice of a union rep, ACAS or an employment law adviser in complex cases.
But to formally report bullying, Pratt advises men read up on in-house grievance and disciplinary policies at their company and follow due process. “We know men find this difficult but we reassure them that they have a right to expect to work in a safe and stress free place of work,” she says.
“A man who believes he is being subjected to unacceptable, or even unlawful, practices in the workplace is just as entitled to raise matters formally as a female co-worker.”
Useful websites and helplines:
The National Bullying Helpline - 0845 22 55 787 or 07734 701221
Bullying UK - 0808 800 2222
ACAS Online Helpline for employment law advice
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