Workplace bullying: Acknowledging grief

Catching my attention this week was an essay by religion professor Jacqueline Bussie (Concordia College, Minnesota) on the experience of grief. Titled “On Becoming Grief Outlaws” and published in The Cresset (the journal of Valparaiso University in Indiana, my undergraduate school), the piece questions how our popular culture urges us to internalize our grief rather than to express it openly. Bussie herself did this when her mother suffered with Alzheimer’s:

For a long time, I extradited my grief underground. I didn’t want to be a Debbie Downer. I didn’t want to live in the jail of other people’s judgment (especially the colleagues, acquaintances, and church folks who thought I should “move on,” “get over it already,” accept “God’s plan,” and “not grieve as one without hope”).

But the life of lies and fake Barbie smiles wore me out. Eventually, I let grief back into its home country—my heart—and let my heart back on to my sleeve.

Now, Bussie is calling upon us to bring grief out of the closet:

As a theologian, teacher, and person of faith, I want us to talk about the hard stuff. I want us to air all the dirty laundry we’re taught never to air—questions without answers, anger at God, scars that cause us shame, doubt that wrestles us to the ground, sorrow we just can’t shake. All of it.

Work abuse and grief

Research studies and seemingly endless numbers of terrible stories have taught us that those who experience workplace bullying and mobbing can lose a lot, especially:

  • Jobs, careers, and livelihoods;
  • Health and well being;
  • Family and friendship ties;
  • Financial stability; and,
  • Reputations and standing in a community.

It is not unusual for someone to lose all of these things as the culmination of an extended campaign of bullying or mobbing.

We typically don’t associate grieving with losses that might blithely be tagged as “work-related,” but in this context (among others), it’s important that we do so. Work abuse exacts a significant toll on its targets. The sense of loss can be deeply palpable. Grief is an understandable response.

Healing, recovery, and renewal

We need to acknowledge grief, but we also cannot let it win. Yes, I know that’s a competitive sounding statement about an emotion that has nothing to do with conventional notions of victory and defeat.

It’s just that I want us to find ways to help people heal, recover, and renew after such terrible losses. There is no singular path toward this better place, but we need to recognize that many must overcome (or at least negotiate with) their grief in order to reach it.

For some, this time of year marks a holiday celebrating rebirth; for others, it’s about a holiday commemorating liberation. My own faith is non-denominational, but I’m happy if we borrow from these faith traditions to count rebirth and liberation from grief as worthy objectives for helping those who have been savaged at their workplaces.

11 responses

  1. Targets of bullying suffer many losses. As we gather with family for Passover, Easter, etc. no one wants to be a “Debbie Downer” or a “Beast of Burden”. Targets become adept at adjusting the channels depending on who we are with and the setting. I can certainly vouch for your list of losses. The most painful for me is not listed – a spiritual death. I had to accept that some principals do not care about students, some teachers do not care about students, some police are corrupt, some lawyers are corrupt, some judges are corrupt, some state agencies that are supposed to make sure the little man is protected against discrimination are corrupt and yes we must be afraid because monsters do exist. I talk about this with my therapist, my doctor, and my psychiatrist. There are very close parallels between recovering from workplace bullying and recovering from loss. Let us hope that the celebration of the exodus, resurrection, and spring is reflected in positive mind/body changes in all our lives.

  2. This article hit also makes me wonder about potential double whammy that has affected me.l left an oppressive job in a company where l was the only RN. Everyone came to me with thier whoas and l really didnt mind providing direction.But when employees began auitting and 4 were taken away in ambulances for stress and anxiety,l informed the owners that perhaps they need to look into this issue.l was basically dismissed as being emotional, .At that time l began saving money as l knew l would need to leave.
    On 9/12/16,l gave notice..l had never worked in such an unprofessional environment. I decided to give my self a few months off, visit my daughter in California during Christmas and begin a new job search at first of year.But in December tragedy struck and my brother, who was my best friend died.The grief l experienced was like no other.By March l felt ready to join the workforce.Now l am having a difficult time obtaining a position with that period of months off.l grieved for my brother at home, working back and forth thru rhe stages.l have always explained when asked truthfully l needed time off to grieve, during interviews.But with my vast experience l never hear back from any prospective employer

    • Employers are fearful of mental health, like most of society; hence even though it is 2017 for some reason it easier to discuss being bisexual or transgendered than having depression. Use your experience as knowledge and don’t mention it. You can say you had so much vacation time saved up and you decided to use it. That will not put up any “red flags” and it will appear as if you are a hard worker; one who does not constantly take days off. Go get ’em!!!

  3. One of the challenges I find with talking about the emotional toll and grief associated with workplace bullying/mobbing is the lack of validation. I find it necessary to be very cautious in electing those to whom I disclose, having been discounted, discredited, and devalued too many times…including longtime friends and a number of professionals from a variety of disciplines.

    There are still so many who cannot believe the experience could have happened, and even among those who do, few believe the depth of the devastation.

    • Agreed. We must be prudent who we share with and not set ourselves up for more emotional harm. This is an injury like none other we have experienced in the past, most likely. So it is confusing when we realize that we can not reach out to our “go to” support system. Once you learn that and get a team of professionals, you can continue to have those old relationships with friends and family, using our time with them as a diversion only.

  4. Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    In a season of renewal, acknowledge the grief of workplace injustice but don’t let it winning by taking over your life…

    PS now that most of my sharing is manual, I’ve been remiss in keeping up with sharing. Confronting precarity and its traveling companion, inequity, invariably means more workplace bullying and savaging as resources get thinner. We need more counsel not less.

  5. I worked for a large state agency and was recently forced to retire.
    Here is my horror story:
    It started in the year 2014 when I was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a manager. Shortly after I was involuntarily transferred the harassment continued.
    I was then physically assaulted and was hurt in the process. I pleaded for help from upper management who just swept in under the rug. Instead of remedying the situation they sat this person next to me as a scare tactic. I was so fearful of my safety that I had to be taken off work from my doctor.
    I decided to be strong and go back to work only to find out that my timesheet is being falsified. My supervisor put me out on days I was at work and me not getting paid. This is when I started to get stalked by the person who sexually assaulted me and the person who physically assaulted me along with the people in my managers inner circle. I found myself being set up to get fired. Because I felt I was good at my job and knew what they were up to, they could not find a reason to fire me. Now they went to the level of trying to pick a fight with me in the elevator with no witnesses in place. I knew then it was time for early retirement which I cannot afford, but realized I was not getting paid anyways and was too dangerous to return to work. I found myself going into depression with visible signs of panic and anxiety attacks. Besides being diagnosed with depression I was also diagnosed with acute stress. I have and still am experiencing dizzy spells, shortness of breath, and have no energy what so ever.
    Below is the system that failed me at all levels:

    Interrnal investigations and by protocol had to be done but found out they were siding with management as a cover up. I have the report and it has been falsified.
    Governor Brown who just sent out policies to my District for o tolerance to this behavior which management is allowed to violate anyway.
    Dept. Of labor which is located in the same building. Went to them for wage theft but soon received a letter stating because I am a state employee they cannot help me.
    Controllers office who said I have to go to the state personal board and I informed them of the wage theft and sexual and physical assaults and the stalking only to be told I have to go to CALHr only to be told they cannot help me as they only represent the employers. At this time all I could do was cry feeling hopeless and no one would help me.
    Filed a police report with CHP as I was told as a state employee this is the only agency I can go through. Our first 1 1/2 meeting this officer only spoke of his personal life and would not listen to my concerns. I found out he was well know by management and soon discovered a pattern of him not returning my phone call and cancelling our meetings. Would not even give me a case no. to attend victim services.
    Had a phone interview with Fair Employment and Housing who would not listen to my concerns and time line of events and quickly said she could not help me and quickly hung up.
    After learning of my retirement, the CHP officer left me a voice mail msg. Stating now he will give me a case no. I informed him I want to drop all charges knowing I will not get an fair investigation. He stated he would have to talk to his supervisor and have not heard anything to this day.
    All of a sudden Caltrans paid me for the previous months for wages that were owed to me.
    There are illegal firing of employees who come forward with information. One of these employees stated he was paid by Caltrans to keep quiet of all the illegal activities.
    This made me think that maybe Caltrans is commiting bribery to keep people from helping me and to keep quiet as I know too much and with no choice became a whistleblower as well.
    I really need advice as if this sounds like bribery and conspiracy is involved.
    Sorry to make this so long but I really need help. I am scared they are going to interfere with my Workers Comp. and retirement as well.
    I do not want to sound dislussional as this is all so real as I have found out from being a target and a victim.
    Thanks so much for reading my post.

    My e-mail address is

    • You are not delusional. Your painful story is classic. Join the facebook page I Support Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill to find your tribe. Also, read all the information on the best site for bullying information – google Workplace Bullying Institute (Gary and Ruth Namie). You will see why I say your narrative is classic. I hope you file a case of sexual harassment with the EEOC. It will empower you. No internal investigations work other than to put a bigger target on your back; however, you have to go through it or the business will say in court that you did not use all the internal resources to deal with your complaint. Now you have checked that box. The best way to stop a bully culture, is to go outside the “family”. If you don’t have already, my first line of advice is to get a support team of a primary care doctor, a therapist, and a psychiatrist. xx

      • Thanks so much for your reply as I really needed some advice. I have a phone interview with EEOC on Tuesday. However, EEOC will only investigate 1 year from the last incident which happened in 2014. With my experience they will not help you unless it is discriminatory . Knowing that Caltrans has interfered with other investigation including Fair Employment and Housing, I do not anticipate a fair investigation with EEOC.
        I have been seeing numerous doctors including psych. which all they want to do is medicate me which does not help. I do not believe in taking pills but have tried them as I was desperate to feel better which only made me feel worse
        I am seeing doctors for my back and neck caused by the physical assault.
        Thank you so much for replying as I am so traumatized by the events and working on getting better.

      • I needed medications to just be able to write about the bullying and re-read toxic emails. If you go to EEOC they should be able to give you advice. My suggestion is you go with a general timeline. I do not think there is a statue of limitations for assault and battery. xx

      • I have a phone interview with EEOC tomorrow. I will keep you posted. Thanks again for your much needed advice.

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