According to the U.S. Department of Labor, many adults spend more time at work than we do with our families. With so many hours spent at work, one would hope the time would be filled with relative peace and happiness—that we would be surrounded by friendly co-workers in a supportive environment, and that productivity and good relationships would be a priority.
Sadly, that is not always the case. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, at least 27% of American adults have experienced bullying at some point. Workplace bullies almost never resort to physical violence—they use psychological and verbal attacks in order to gain a sense of power and cause emotional trauma. Typical bullying behaviors, according to the Institute, include verbal abuse; threatening, intimidating or humiliating behaviors; and work interference, including sabotage.
What workplace bullying looks like
Victims of workplace bullies often find that they are impacted both at work and away from work. Bullies have the unique ability to get under their victims’ skin in a way that is hard to shake off. Often even the most positive and emotionally healthy person will find him or herself feeling defeated, angry and even helpless. Victims can become depressed, anxious or suffer from lack of sleep. Psychologist Noreen Tehrani, Ph.D., wrote Managing Trauma in the Workplace after conducting research that showed bullying creates similar psychological and physical symptoms to those of soldiers who have returned from combat overseas!
Interestingly enough, the targets of workplace bullying are not typically passive, insecure people who are inexperienced or new—much like we might see when we are talking about a school age bully. Instead, workplace bullies prefer to target employees who they see as a threat: someone who is competent, well liked and experienced. Their goal is to attempt to intimidate and gain power over the person in order to feel better about their own insecurities.
How to handle the workplace bully
As adults, bullies tend to be more subtle and passive-aggressive than the schoolyard variety. They are often driven, powerful individuals who at their core have similar emotional issues as child or teen bullies. They may behave this way out of low self-esteem, insecurity and a need to feel powerful by bringing others down.
My experience as a therapist has taught me that it can be ineffective to try to get the bully to change unless he or she wants to change. As a result, my advice focuses on what the victim can do for him or herself. If you are being bullied at work and for whatever reason you need to stick with your job, you must focus on protecting your emotional state and preventing this person from emotionally and psychologically impacting you.
1. Do not let the bully impact your well-being.
While it is natural to be rattled, hurt and angered by your treatment, it is important that you not allow the bully to take your emotional power away. Focus on the positive things in your life. Remind yourself that the fact that you are being treated badly does not have anything to do with who you are as a person. Redirect your emotions by doing things you enjoy that are away from work.
2. Distance yourself both emotionally and physically, if possible.
It is important for your well-being to limit your interactions with anyone who is bullying you at work (or anyone who brings negativity into your life, for that matter). If you are forced to be around that person, limit the time you spend with him or her as much as possible and tell yourself to emotionally disengage. The less time and energy you invest in your relationship, the better. If you are in a frequent work relationship where you cannot disengage, consider talking to your manager about the situation or going to the Human Resources department for help.
3. Give back to those you feel deserve your time and energy.
When you are feeling besieged at work, one way to increase your sense of well-being and self-worth is to give back to a worthy cause and remind yourself that you are a powerful positive force in this world. Donate to a favorite charitable organization or volunteer to help a friend with a challenging project. Then focus on the good you are doing to help offset the negativity coming at you at work.
4. Lean on your support system.
When a person treats us in a way that is unkind, we often have a tendency to retreat and isolate. From a psychological point of view it is important to do the reverse: Bring people you love and care about closer, spend time with them, call them on the phone, and share your story and let them lift your spirits.
It doesn’t matter how old you are, what city you live in, or where you work—you’re bound to encounter toxic people who treat others in a cruel and demeaning way. Since it’s nearly impossible to change these folks, your goal should be to minimize the impact they have on you. Make a pact with yourself that you will not let the bullies bring you down!
Stacy Kaiser is a successful Southern California-based licensed psychotherapist, author, relationship expert and media personality. She is an editor at large for Live Happy, and the author of How to Be a Grown Up: The Ten Secret Skills Everyone Needs to Know.