Last summer, I wrote that many targets of workplace bullying go through a procession of stages in their paths toward a better place: Recognition, response, recovery, and renewal. I’d like to revisit that framework and examine where we are now in our ability to help individuals who are experiencing bullying at work.
Recognizing that one is being bullied at work has become easier. In the U.S., the term “workplace bullying” is gaining wider usage, buttressed by growing coverage in the popular and social media, and supported by an expanding body of research and academic commentary. Consequently, many are able to tap into sources that validate their experiences and impressions. This has occurred time and again, for example, when people find their way to the website of the Workplace Bullying Institute.
However, responding to workplace bullying behaviors isn’t easy. True, today we have a much better understanding of the potential choices and resources available to targets of bullying at work. Nevertheless, these options, ranging from self-help measures to legal interventions, are limited. It remains the case that unrelenting abuse at work, especially when allowed to go unchecked by the employer, usually results in the target leaving the job or being pushed out as the final measure of a campaign of bullying. This is especially so in the U.S., where the current paucity of legal protections against workplace bullying gives employers scant incentive to prevent and respond to it.
The most challenging stages are recovery and renewal, but they also offer the most reward.
If severe bullying at work triggers acute stress reactions, anxiety, depression, and/or other health-harming conditions, then recovering from that experience may require professional assistance. The helping modalities may include therapy and counseling, medical care, personal and career coaching. Here, legal advice may be helpful in assessing benefit options.
As I wrote last summer, it’s awfully hard to recover from bullying unless the threat is removed. Typically the recovery process can begin when the individual is no longer confronted by the abusive behaviors.
Finally, we have renewal. Here is where an individual becomes freed from the bad experience and starts to (re)discover the joy, buzz, and zest of life. This usually requires time and effort, and sometimes ongoing work with mental health professionals, advisors, and coaches. For some, it means finding a workplace dramatically different from the one they left, or perhaps even discovering a new vocation.
For someone in the midst of an abusive work environment, the stage of renewal may look as if it’s on the other side of the world, but it is achievable.
So what does this all mean? First, over the years I have observed that many targets of workplace bullying get stuck somewhere between the stages of recognition and recovery. They may gain considerable understanding about bullying at work, but frequently they lose their jobs. The overall experience finds them caught in feelings of anger and resentment, at times dealing with what some have labeled post-traumatic embitterment disorder.
Second, the process of moving from recognition to renewal is not necessarily a linear one. The four stages may overlap, and stress reactions may recur even as someone is progressing toward recovery and renewal.
Third, although we’ve gained a ton of knowledge and understanding about workplace bullying over the past decade, we are still developing effective, accessible responses and helping options for those who are dealing with this serious form of workplace abuse. We’ve got a lot of important work ahead of us.