Can religious faith help us to deal with workplace bullying?

In talking about responding to, coping with, and recovering from bullying and other forms of interpersonal abuse at work, the role of religious faith often receives only obligatory acknowledgment. For targets of workplace bullying, religion usually is tacked on to a short list of possible sources of support, along with family, friends, therapy, and coaching.

I think we need a deeper conversation about how faith can help people to deal with this form of mistreatment.

I’m probably not the best person to be raising this question. My own faith remains very much a work in progress. For much of my adult life, I considered myself a hopeful agnostic. During the past 10 years, I have come to believe in a higher force, and I sense that God’s reality is somewhere in the intersection of our major faith traditions, informed by insights from science, psychology, and spirituality. For those reasons, it probably won’t surprise people to know that I associate with Unitarian Universalism.

My own “loose parts” religious beliefs notwithstanding, I see a lot more potential for religious faith to help people through their most challenging experiences of work and vocation. While the secular workplace should not be governed by any particular set of religious beliefs, one’s personal faith and convictions can be a powerful source of strength and support in dealing with abuse of all sorts, including bullying at work.

In making these points, I am not trying to argue for or against organized religion or any specific religious beliefs. Furthermore, to anticipate what I’m sure will be one response, I readily concede that some religious institutions may harbor and enable bullying behaviors as well.

Rather, I’m looking at this from the most grounded, individual level. For those whose worldview includes an embrace of a faith tradition, I believe it can help them weather life’s storms in the workplace. I’d like to see more attention devoted to that source of support.

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Related post

What if we applied the Golden Rule at work? (2010)

20 responses

  1. I will respond to this by stating that 15 months of a life on hold (in every way imaginable) that one looks inward: rationalizing whether or not I was the cause, why I was exposed to this, and why did my coworkers accept their abuse….for me the belief of a higher power was a definite presence. I verbalized both in private and in public :”Please help me get through this day and start anew tomorrow” more days than not. The belief that “this too shall pass” and that there was a better plan for me when the formal/legal part was over kept me going. Sharing with choice family and friends also helped, but they could only do so much…force me to eat, drag me to family events, keep things light and by the same token get in my face that it gets better. So yes, Mr. Yamada, personal faith definitely played a (more than I expected) role in my recovery(?), since my Worker’s Comp caseworker defied a court order to provide psychological treatment, this faith was a sanity check for me. It has been a month since my case was settled and I continue to spin my wheels daily to avoid moving on. I will get to the point where I HAVE to make important life decisions based on lack of options and finding it harder to live by gracious host’s house rules.

  2. I don’t know about this….I consider myself a spiritual seeker, and I did not find that it prevented me from ending up with PTSD. I’m not sure that attempting to detach is the way to go about it.
    Have theer been any psychological studies about detachment as a method of dealing with PTSD?

    As for religious institutions bullying people, yes – a good example was The Inquisition.

    • I am personally unaware of studies utilizing detachment from the memories of the trauma and the symptoms that arise although there appears to be some material that talks about the use of detachment as a systematic approach with the assistance of a trained professional.

      I do think that when someone is in the later stages of recovery from trauma, that detachment from the automatically occurrence of thoughts/feelings associated with reactions to the trauma may be more common.

      At this phase the person has engaged in a grieving process and is able to move on in a more wholesome way, other than finding coping mechanisms that enable the person to put the periodic arousal of symptoms into perspective, as these symptoms can be triggered by environmental stimuli that reminds the person of the original trauma.

      It might be safe to say that prolonged trauma is harder to work with, as I know full well from having experienced the bullying for nine years. I am just beginning to get a sense of how the bullying and the termination has impacted upon my ability to trust others due to fears that I will unwittingly choose an employment position that has an offender that I may not able to protect myself from.

      This is a tough topic. Certainly I do turn to prayer.

      • I, too, am about to take the “leap of faith” and make initial contact with employment agencies and private companies as well. My cover letter (draft version) includes full disclosure of the reason for the dreaded GAP IN EMPLOYMENT. I feel it is better to get that part out of the way rather than waste anyone’s time by waiting for the in-person interview. I am anxious and, like you, have trust issues at the thought of a repeat occurrence at a new position. Asking why the position is available was always a valid one for me, but now I will look for body language more than hear the answer. Thanks for validating that fear: I thought it was me being oversensitive.

      • Thank you, Laurie, for sharing your thoughts. I would be most interested in how your approach to dealing with there having being a termination works for you. I want to move forward but gosh, there is a baggage to carry, or so it seems.

        I, too, do not know how to approach the topic. In one fairly recent interview I did put the termination on the table. She thanked me for her honesty and hired someone else.

        The full disclosure approach is rather interesting. After I shared my termination experience at the interview level-I volunteered the information-folks starting telling me not to bring up the topic unless they do.

        In other words, I have been advised not to say anything unless asked if I had ever been fired, etc.

        I am most pensive about moving forward as I do reside in a rather small community where everyone knows one another in the field that I work in is the norm.

      • I was not fired. I told the Owner that I was not going to accept his abuse one more day, turned in my keys and left. I am a Corporate Accountant who, prior to that job, had never failed nor been treated as such. The Owner went to college to be an accountant, failed miserably (was handed the family business from Mommy), and couldn’t stand the fact that I knew my job and the wrong and illegal he was doing with company funds and a Line of Credit. With reference to moving on, I have been advised to not disclose and that makes me severely uncomfortable – not my style to mislead (although I was technically employed until the settlement was reached). I fear I may be black-balled by this: damned if I do and damned if I don’t (disclose). I would ask Mr.Yamada (and any others) for his advice based on any feedback he has received on this subject or other’s personal experiences. >>>Justicepending…may I ask what state you are in? <<<<<<<

      • Laurie, I reside in Massachusetts. I, too, tend to be rather forth right in honestly disclosing the truth. I find it uncomfortable to reframe my story, so to speak.

        I am attempting to understand the concept as a tool to be utilized for extraordinary circumstances. Of course, if asked if I was ever terminated, I certainly would be forthcoming about that.

        Just not sure how to proceed, quite honestly.

      • My torture took place in MA as well and I therefore am getting the heck outta there in the hope of employment in a peaceful place, I was born and raised in NH so am targeting that state….familiar, positive surroundings as well as good memories from there.

      • I certainly wish you the best, Laurie. You certainly deserve it. I wonder if NH has a bill developing.

        I truly do believe that absent legal protections employees are most vulnerable to workplace abuse wherever we may reside.

        It is my understanding that many of the European countries have these protections in place.

        It, also, seems as though there have been some successes moving forward from this type of harm visited upon victims of workplace abuse, evidenced by some of the testimony shared on this blog.

        Best wishes to you.

  3. I think we all come equipped with some measure of faith, and when our faith in humanity is so sorely tested, we look for somewhere more rewarding to attach it….or at least shift the balance of our allotments of faith when experience shows us how wrong we have been.

  4. If you think about Jesus, statements he said, and the crucifixion, there are a few things that can help.

    I hold onto his instruction that we are to pray alone.

    Tell no person your sins or put faith in any person.

    Be kind to your enemy and forgive them.

    Who would cast the first stone?

    Lastly and the most difficult to remember at times is, what ever it is that we are suffering with cannot compare to what was endured during crucifixion. So be strong and keep faith that it’s all just momentary and the lack of love in the world has been accounted for.

  5. I am looking at a small sample size of nurses who are bullied. Emotional coping (e.g. humor, prayer, expressing negative feelings, blaming yourself) seems to be more protective for individuals who are bullied when there is nothing, nothing they can change about the situation. There are always exceptions as problem-focused coping (e.g. positive reframing, acceptance, take action to resolve the issue, talk to friends) shows less impact with the psychological consequences but if you have to work in a toxic organization to make ends meet, prayer and meditation is helpful even though leaving would be the best solution. Those environments are so difficult to change. And, blaming yourself is not the answer. There is usually nothing the target did to deserve ill treatment.

    David, I could not pass up making a comment as I am only intermittently on line right now.

    • Sadly, I am an ex-nurse. I chose not to be identified as a member of a group it is socially acceptable to demean and diminish…because I have that choice. I might have made different career decisions had I been informed of the reality at the outset: abuse IS part of the package.

      I hope there is a different workplace standard for future nurses, that they can contribute to the well-being of our people without personally bearing a disproportionate cost. At the very least, let’s ensure that they are provided accurate information on which to base informed decisions.

  6. Dear David,
    Thank you for your blog today regarding faith and workplace bullying.
    It’s amazing to me how God uses the unfortunate times in our lives to His purpose. For me, the seven years I suffered from Agoraphobia caused from extreme mobbing, along with numerous other illnesses and challenges also created by being bullied, brought me back to God and restored my faith along with increasing it ten- fold.
    Because of my faith in what God can and is doing through me and my work, I’m able to reach out to others to help them become more aware of what workplace bullying is and how to deal with it and most importantly, prevent it.
    Bullying does take place in every area in our lives, workplaces, personal lives, non-profits and yes, sadly, even religious institutions. Our responsibility is to educate and bring awareness to as many as possible.
    Does faith have a place in all of this? You bet it does.
    Thank you for your daily blogs I get in my email. You can’t imagine how many times you’ve blessed me with information and personal insights.

  7. Having experienced workplace bullying and worked through it from confused consternation to enlightenment and empowerment, I couldn’t agree more. I too have been mostly agnostic throughout my life, but have come to spirituality and belief in a force greater than me; a force that I have felt beside me in my quest to become more self-aware. This deep sense of communion supported me in some of the darkest days when I had to first confront the reality of what was occurring to me; at first a puzzled and confused target and victim, but later a vocal proponent of naming workplace bullying for what it is, so that workers and employers alike could squarely focus on the issue, rather than see it as a dirty little secret worthy only of fearful or embarrassed silence. Embraced spirituality gives one context. If we are part of something bigger than ourselves, we can find our legs beneath us. The power of belonging helps us each stand on our own two feet and bolsters us against the humiliation that workplace bullies rely on their victims to feel.

  8. For me I depended upon my spirituality most assuredly during the victimization at my workplace. Because I am an eclectic I do embrace forms of spirituality and religions as long as the precepts do not include harming self or others.

    I depended on my faith to keep me going even during the darkest days. In time, I chose the path of identifying and sharing what the behavior was both to my immediate supervisor, as well as the CEO. On occasion I would, also, share the topic with co-workers as the targeting of me was especially caustic, and my co-workers couldn’t help but notice it.

    I was able to retain my self-respect throughout the years even though there was a very specific agenda to break my spirit, so to speak. However, I knew that once my bully perceived herself as having won by my accepting that I am less than worthy of respectful treatment, the assaults on my character would be unending.

    I was terminated and I do believe that I was terminated because I would not accept the role assigned to me, which was one of being a scapegoat.

    Embracing my spiritually is particularly challenging, once again, as I am now in the process of trying to heal from the injuries inflicted upon me. There is most assuredly scar tissue that will probably always be there in one form or another.

    It helps to know that I am not alone in this experience. This phenomenon has much earlier roots than any one of us has to own as being specific to ourselves. We soldier on and it is my hope and sincerest prayer that each and every one of us will overcome and that this legislation will be enacted so that those who are still in these toxic settings can garner some hope.

    Without the legal protections against bullying I am so very nervous about putting myself into another toxic situation, even though I know that I have to put forth effort and move forward with my life.

  9. I very much appreciate everyone’s comments here, and I know for some of you, it also meant sharing something about your own experiences and religious beliefs. I have thought about writing on this topic for some time, didn’t know quite what to say, then realized the best approach for me would be toss it out there and see what folks think.

    I was a little disappointed that five people unsubscribed after I posted this. I didn’t get any angry or unhappy responses, but it’s rare that I see a small chunk of people take their names off the list apparently because of one post — even when I’ve taken fairly strong political positions. Although it doesn’t cause me to regret publishing the article, it highlights for me how sensitive questions of religion and faith can be, and for some simply bringing it up is a deal breaker.

    But for others, it’s part of their story, and I think we need to include it in our discussions.

    • I am truly sorry that some found your article offensive. Without forums such as these to vent, share, etc. I know I would have felt more isolated than I did / (do). A big part of my recovery depended on this and the knowledge that I was not the only one, not singled out (in the grand scheme of things).Faith does not always equal religion, but if it does, who are any of us to judge when we are all trying to regain some of what we lost? In my book, whatever we feel adds any positive into in another otherwise negative, lousy day should not be criticized.

      • I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that they found it offensive, but they may have felt uncomfortable with a blog that acknowledges the potential value of something they have rejected or perhaps even renounced. When I was in my staunchest agnostic place, I resented anything that smacked of imposing an orthodoxy. I still don’t have much patience for evangelizing, but now I feel as though the different faith traditions have something to teach me. Perhaps these readers felt otherwise.

  10. My faith was the cornerstone of surviving a year of relentless bullying. It may be unfamiliar for some for me prayer into work, through the day and on the way home helped me survive pure evil.

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