SUMMARY: Describing perceptions, de-stressing outside of work and focusing on self-care are some protective strategies for employees who are experiencing bullying or harassment.

Our mental and emotional wellbeing is likely to be affected when we perceive that we are the target of behaviour that could be described as bullying. These situations can also have a significant impact on our productivity and interactions with others. Yet sometimes it can be very difficult to prove that the behaviour is causing harm because there may be insufficient conclusive, objective evidence.

Even if we are successful in reporting what we perceive to be bullying or harassment, we may not be able to stop the behaviours or have the situation addressed effectively. When our complaint is dismissed or ignored, it can increase feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness and isolation. If conflict resolution is offered to address bullying it may be a long or sometimes uncomfortable process.

No matter what processes or supports are available in the workplace, taking steps to protect our own health and productivity can also help us cope. At a time when it may feel that we are being subjected to behaviours outside of your control, there are still things we can do that are within your control. This includes describing our perceptions clearly, de-stressing outside of work, and increasing our self-care. When we are better able to cope, we are better equipped to make decisions about whether to address, avoid or walk away from the bullying behaviour.

Describing our perceptions

We all have different perspectives. By describing the behaviour of others in terms of how we experience their actions (e.g. insensitive, inconsiderate, disrespectful or isolating) we can more objectively explain the situation to ourselves or others.  The following are some examples:

  • “When I see people rolling their eyes while I am presenting an idea, I perceive this as inconsiderate of my contribution.”
  • “When I am the only one on the team not invited when people are going out for a coffee break, I experience this as isolating.”
  • “When someone goes into my desk and takes my things, I experience this as disrespect.”

Some other questions we can ask ourselves:

  • How do I prefer to receive critical feedback? Have I ever shared this with those who are expected to provide feedback to me?
  • How do I react when I think that my boss or co-workers are frustrated with me?
  • If someone at work is feeling frustration with my work or behaviour, how would I like him or her to express it?
  • How do I respond to what I perceive as negative attitude of others towards me?
  • When do I perceive good-natured teasing as crossing the line into insensitivity?
  • When do I perceive that feedback crosses the line to being insensitive?
  • What do I perceive as disrespectful behaviour from my manager or co-workers?
  • What do I perceive to be excluding behaviours? Am I doing things that isolate me from my team as a way of coping?

De-stressing outside of work

  • Consider all areas of your life outside of work that can contribute to stress, e.g. other jobs, volunteer work, immediate family, extended family, friends, neighbours, living conditions, finances, physical health and wellbeing, hobbies and interests, and other areas that are relevant to you
  • List the ways in which you are experiencing stress in each of these areas
  • Choose one are two stressors that you can change immediately
  • Every week consider addressing one or two more stressors

Alan was an insurance adjustor. He was a single father of two adolescent children, a baseball coach for his daughter’s team, a volunteer at his local hospital and the primary caretaker of his aging mother. Alan perceived that he was being bullied by a co-worker and tried to have the behaviour addressed, but he did not have evidence to support his complaint. He began to experience headaches and nausea every morning on his way to work, and at work he lost confidence as he began to make errors on even routine tasks. Alan looked at the other areas of his life, and the stressors in them. He asked a few of the parents on the baseball team to take on some of the administrative coaching tasks that he found time consuming and stressful. He then reduced his volunteer hours at the hospital to one evening a week instead of two. Next, he arranged with his sister who lived in a distant city to take on some of the caretaking tasks for their mother that could be done from a distance. Alan also sought counseling from the Employee Assistance Provider that was part of his work benefit package. These changes helped reduce the negative physical and psychological impact from the bullying and increased his sense of control. This did not immediately change the work situation, but allowed him to cope until he was able to make necessary changes.

Increasing self-care

  • Breathing
    • Breathe more intentionally and fully to reduce stress. For one minute, breathe deeply with full lung expansion and exhalation. Do this as many times a day as you can. Do it when you brush your teeth, walk to the bus stop, cook your dinner, wait at a traffic light, sit at your desk, etc.
  • Calming the mind
    • Consider a specific time when you felt peaceful and calm. Try to remember exactly how it felt in your mind and body – face, neck, shoulders, chest, hands, feet, etc. Learn to recall and recreate that calm feeling any time you need it.
  • Moving the body
    • Start or increase physical activity – anything that moves the body: exercising, working out, dancing, walking, standing instead of sitting, stretching, yoga.
  • What we put into the body
    • Stay hydrated by drinking plain water throughout the day.
    • Watch consumption of caffeine, which can increase agitation.
    • Watch consumption of alcohol and other substances that can be used as stress relievers. Saying When is a step-by-step program, offered by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health that helps people cut down or stop drinking.
    • Pay attention to how much and what kind of food you eat, especially foods that are high in sugar, salt and sodium.
  • Interacting with people
    • Limit contact with people with whom you don’t feel good.
    • At the same time, resist the urge to isolate yourself.
    • Increase contact with people in your life who help you feel good.
  • Giving to others
    • Consider how you can be of help to others. When we engage in helping behaviours, it can give us a break from our state of distress.
  • Receiving help
    • Ask for help and allow others to give you help.
  • Seeking professional help
    • Consider going to a counselor or therapist to help you through this tough time, and using free resources including those available through Employee Assistance Programs.

Alan addressed his self-care by putting a note on the dashboard of his car to remind him to breathe intentionally at every traffic light while driving to work. He decided to walk 30 minutes to work twice a week. He stopped buying soft drinks and instead bought a refillable water container and drank plain water. He phoned a good friend he had not seen in months and set up times to get together to play cards. Each of these actions helped Alan to not only manage his stress, but to actually begin to feel better and stronger. This made it easier for him to consider his options and make decisions about addressing, avoiding or walking away from the bullying behaviour.

It would be preferable that behaviours in the workplace are not allowed to escalate to the point where the employee needs to take these measures. Harassment and Bullying Prevention focuses on preventing and responding to behaviours that are offensive or potentially harmful to others.