Workplace bullying: The challenges in moving from recognition to renewal

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.

11 responses

  1. I was very disappointed in the decision of the ERD/EEOC Investigator – “No Probable Cause”. I had decided to drop the case because of all of the stress, but I asked him I wanted to know the answer for closure. The answer made me more sad. I went through bullying/harassment for 3 years and it took 4 years to get that answer. I had so much back-up information, it filled a carry-on suitcase. The witnesses got scared. I know I could appeal, but I cannot go through anymore. I am also protected class and working with the Division of Vocational Rehab to find work. I don’t even want to work anymore. I worked over 23 years at my last job plus another 16 years at other jobs. I was portrayed with lies and up against 4-5 upper management women. There has been at least 50 people+ bullied out of this workplace. I stuck it out until they dreamed up a way to terminate me. I am active promoting Healthy Workplace Bill into Law. I was bullied and harassed, plus hostile work environment. Don’t people see this? It is so obvious. I cannot believe what goes on behind the scenes. For all I know the Investigator was paid off by the workplace’s lawyer. The Investigator also told me, “The company has spent a lot of money on their lawyer”. I thought that was inappropriate. I had a lawyer in the beginning and could not afford to keep him for part 2 of my case (part 2 because it lasted so long). I see a counselor, who is a Nun. She told me, “They will all have their day”. I even told the investigator that I am trying to forgive those involved in this whole situation. It is very hard to do. This is a perfect example why the Healthy Workplace Bill needs passing – to stop upper management from using their power to do anything they want to an employee and get away with it. They took away my dignity, self-esteem, loss of co-worker friends, and I am portrayed incorrectly. My counselor said I have severe post-traumatic stress disorder from this whole situation. Perhaps, it is post-traumatic embitterment disorder (never heard of that term). I did read that it can be like being in a prison camp, because you never know what is next. That is how it felt. Many co-workers said they felt sick the night before work and that our supervisor was like “Hitler,” but they are still afraid to do anything. They are afraid of a woman who is probably very insecure herself. It is like everyone knows the truth, but always covering it up and not rocking the boat. I believe I was the only employee to rock that boat, but the Captain is back on course.

  2. After being out of work (while ,waiting for my Workers Comp case to be settled/heard in court) for 15 months, I bit the bullet and started actively searching for work, at a pace so slow that I thought at times that the search was to be my life. I totally blew the first interview, and upon driving away from it in utter shame and embarrassment, I called to say that was just not me and could we try it again. At the exact same time the interviewer was calling me to invite me back, thought that something seemed off. I went back 3 days later and explained my anxiety in as few details as possible – the truth, just simplified. At that time I was offered the job, thanked for my honesty and told when to report. I started that job, had a few meltdowns during the first 6 or 7 weeks, explained them briefly, and was again thanked for my candor and ability to move forward. I don’t know what I did to deserve such understanding and compassionate and respectful employers and co-workers, but this is where I again respond to whether or not faith helped get me through and found the perfect job for me as I continue to recover. For anyone still healing and doubting their ability to both survive and feel genuine pride at the end of the day, I am living proof that it does get better if you ease your way beck into ‘life’ and not pressure yourself or be so hard on yourself. No fancy words here, just simple ones to convey that if I can carry on and move forward, anyone can. Love and Hugs to my Fellow Warriors !

    • Wow! Thanks for sharing your heartwarming experience. I’m glad to hear it happened. What kind of employer are you working for now? 🙂

      • NTAGN: 7/30/2014…I still have bouts of anxiety attacks, definitely triggered by flashbacks, but this employer insists that I “go/do” whatever I need to get through them…I usually go for a walk and cry it out…I still have anxiety when in grocery stores or in traffic, for example. I am able to get through for the most part and have had to leave work out of defeat twice so far. I have found the perfect place and people with which to re-enter the workforce with confidence and acceptance of my situation. I am SOO grateful !!! Slow and steady was the key, not putting too much pressure on myself was hard but necessary. HUGS TO ALL !! IT GETS BETTER !!

  3. I love that you have been pondering this and even wrote about it. Thank you!

    Working through the grieving and deeply ingrained physiological effects of workplace bullying such as PTSD is a big job. I sure wish I could find a local therapist well educated in these matters and invested in working with someone who’s been through something like I have. I am a gifted healer myself. Everything in me longs to heal. How I long for guidance on this side of things. 🙂

    Where is an honest and mature counselor who has seen enough of it him or herself and found the way back out? Someone who doesn’t need me to convince him or her that what conspired was not caused by my lack of people skills or self-confidence. Someone who doesn’t feel sorry for me at all… who respects my deep battle wounds. Someone with enough wits and courage and resources to have walked the healing path before me and, by simply existing, remind me it exists.

    For what it’s worth!

  4. The bullying doesn’t stop when you are forced into the workers comp system, it gets worse, I don’t think I will ever recover from this . Attorneys, insurance carriers, employers they torment you even more . The law judges ignore the dilatory tactics , the claims examiner say it happens to everyone. You report the abuse and no one cares.
    It is bad, I feel that there is no chance for recovery, its to late . The systems in ny state all play a part in ongoing abuse. I was left in the system for 3 years while the comp games where played and fraudulent deals were being offered to me .
    Begging for help has caused more damage and embarrassment .

  5. When stabbed in the back by persons of trust, the tongue is a blade that is especially long, sharp, and cold. The assassins work skillfully and without regard for the soul within. Although the victim appears to live and breathe in the aftermath, the heart is forever broken and broken yet again, when the assassin turns and says ” ’twas not my doing, but a self inflicted wound! “

  6. I read the article and the responses – unfortunately, all of this “hits home”. I experienced several years of indignities at the hands of 2 co-workers who were favored by the director at the time. I didn’t complain, just focused on my work and this was a big mistake. One of the bully co-workers was promoted to director. She started to find fault with everything that I did, gave me a poor performance review, and eventually gave me a performance warning. The performance review was based on lies and exaggerations. All of this after 22 years of stellar performance reviews and consistent achievements. When HR was no help, I obtained a lawyer who helped me through the formal grievance process, but to no avail, I lost my job last year.

    Throughout this process it was very helpful to find out about WBI from a friend. Finding information on this topic and learning about the experiences of others helped me a great deal. The experience of loss was devastating, not only did I lose my job, but I also (as another blogger expressed it) lost dignity, self-esteem, co-worker friends. The whole course of events has been so extremely stressful that I developed physical symptoms as well. I am now physically fine, but it has taken a whole year to deal with the stress involved and to feel whole again. I will never forget the incredible injustice or the manner in which I was treated, but those memories are now in the back of my mind and not in the forefront every day as they used to be. It helped me to see a counselor. I first saw a counselor that was not at all helpful or understanding, but I ended up going to a counselor who started as a grief counselor through Hospice (I saw her after my mother passed away). I see her once a month now, she is more like a life coach to me now. No matter how insightful you are (I am a counselor myself), it helps to talk to someone who validates what you have been through and supports and understands you. I hope to get to a point to use my counseling skills to help others that have gone through this. I have to figure out how to identify clients.

    • “BT,” thank you for your thoughtful comment. I took the liberty of changing your moniker here from “Been There” to “BT” because another frequent commenter here has been using the “Been There” name for some time and I didn’t want to cause confusion. I hope that’s okay, and once again thank you for sharing your experience, with best wishes to you toward moving forward.

  7. Everybody who commented, including me, experienced basically the same long-term feelings after being bullied. We are all searching for answers, and do not understand how others can treat a good employee in this manner. We are all probably caring, empathetic individuals, well liked, who the bullies in upper management picked on purposefully. Are we a threat to our supervisors? The supervisors, or anyone involved in the promoting the bullying process, must get a kick out of it. They are people who are quick at making up lies. They must spend most of their work day thinking of what mean thing to do next. I think the bullies refer to a secret bullying training manual; it must be kept in a locked safe. They have to know exactly what to do and say (or perhaps it is just second nature to them). It seems very well thought out and then they document the opposite of what really happened between them and the employee. I would love to see how this works and what goes on behind the scenes. My supervisor must have received a trophy or a raise for her diabolical work. She bullied 5 employees and they quit in 3 months (must be a record). I am guessing that many of you did not even realize this type of behavior existed at work. It took me a while to finally catch on to what was happening. I was totally naive to this bad behavior, because I would never think of doing this – my mind does not understand this; I enjoy seeing others succeed and be happy. If I were a supervisor and my director told me bullying employees to quit, was now going to be part of my job description, I would definitely tell them no. I worked at a large corporation. More than 50 employees quit due to bullying (some from different departments). How can a company even come up with or find someone in upper management to do this? How can the bullies go about their everyday lives and not feel bad? The sad part, is if they have children, the children are learning this inappropriate behavior by observation. We never asked for this and it takes time to get your “old self” back. I am still a work in progress. This whole bullying thing is becoming out of control in our Country. Our society must do something. I believe that only “the bullied” can truly understand these feelings. It is hard to get the Heathy Workplace Bill passed, unless someone involved in the voting process can actually feel empathy for us or it happened to them. It amazes me how simple this law would stop this insane abuse towards another human being. Remember WWJD? Jesus would never do this. I hope he will hear our prayers by either helping the bullies stop, allowing us to forgive them (very difficult), bringing them to their knees, asking for forgiveness, or asking us to forgive them for the torture they put us through. Like my counselor said to me, “They will have their day.”

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