Redeveloping balance: Women after workplace bullying

Friday, November 5, 2010

Elsie Hambrook
Guest Contributor

Recently, researchers at the University of New Brunswick interviewed 36 women from Atlantic Canada who had been bullied in the workplace. What they learned is surprising. The researchers’ main conclusions, published last month in an academic journal, was that women could not continue working in a business-as-usual way after experiencing bullying because it interfered with their health and work practices.

“Their approach to work, energy while at work, and ability to accomplish work are affected.” Their thoughts were consumed by the interference caused by the bullying. One woman said, “I had abilities but I couldn’t use them in this organization. You are a competent person but you weren’t allowed to be competent.”

Some women reported having, for example, gastrointestinal symptoms when thinking or talking about work, driving past work buildings, or being at work.

The researchers identified that women managed this problem through a four-stage process the researchers called “‘Doing Work Differently’: Being Conciliatory, Reconsidering, Reducing Interference and Redeveloping Balance”.

How fast and how well the women moved through the stages seemed to depend on the effect of bullying on their health, whether they had support from family, coworkers and workplace structures, and their financial circumstances.

About half of the interviewed women worked in professional roles such as education, health care and management and the other half in roles such as retail, food service, and clerical. Over half worked in unionized workplaces. Most were bullied by a person in authority, most often a woman.

In the first stage, “Being Conciliatory,” women try to make peace or avoid the bully, make excuses and try to accommodate. Some may not have identified that they are being bullied. One woman attributed bullying to her own personality: “I’m easygoing... I’m not aggressive.” Some excused bullying by blaming their own problems or their work reputations. Another woman said, “[The bully’s] gotta be going through something. She’s very unhappy in her job.” Eventually, the women see that the bullying is not transitory and question themselves: “Maybe I’m imagining this.” “Am I losing my mind? Is it this a menopause thing?”

Women who felt supported by families, friends, or coworkers were more likely to look further and begin to question the bullying behavior.

Some changed their approaches to work to fit bullies’ expectations. “I kept changing me and changing me.” Another would leave work at the right time and go back and finish her work. One woman would close her door, and avoid contact with others, which ultimately compromised her work. Some women deny it to avoid filing harassment charges. When one woman’s supervisor asked if she wanted to file a complaint, she replied, “I just want her to stop.”

All these excuses and attempts to accommodate have an effect on women’s ability to work and on their health.

When they begin to realize the futility of their responses, they begin to name the actions as bullying, and the transition to Stage 2 begins. Women who do not identify what is happening “linger in the first stage, trying the same approaches repeatedly”.

Women could recognize bullying earlier and spend less time being conciliatory in stage 1 if time and money were invested in educating workforces about what constitutes bullying and how it can be addressed. “There are devastating long-term consequences when women try to access resources that are too little and too late.”

If employees who witness bullying felt able to record and report it confidentially, earlier intervention might be possible. Currently fear of becoming targets themselves limits many bystanders from intervening.

Bravo to Judith MacIntosh, Judith Wuest, Marilyn Merritt Gray and Sarah Aldous for their study, “Effects of Workplace Bullying on How Women Work.” It is noteworthy that this was nursing research – developing knowledge related to nursing practice – expanding nicely what we think of as nursing.

Additional new research from Queen’s University in Kingston has shown that workplace bullying can be more damaging than racial or gender harassment. “General workplace harassment is a subtle form of mistreatment that masks underlying motives.” It may be especially detrimental because unlike gender and ethnic harassment, it is not illegal and because victims don’t have a recourse.

Evidently, employers but also workplace health and safety legislation and commissions need to pay attention to workplace bullying. Prevention is also key. After the fact, there is no totally satisfactory solution.

The bully must get the message “Don’t even think of it”; potential targets must know there is help; bystanders must know how to react; and we must all see this as a social, not just an individual, problem.

Elsie Hambrook is Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women. E-mail: acswcccf [*at*] gnb [*dot*] ca.


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