My cousin Laura told me when we caught up recently that she’d left her job with nothing else to go to, and she was sure she’d made the right decision. I was surprised: Laura has always been a very solid and responsible woman, and has worked continuously since the children were in their teens. Perhaps she had taken early retirement? No, despite being 62 years of age, that wasn’t it. She’d left because she’d been bullied at work for about six months, and had decided enough was enough. Over several cups of coffee, she told me all about it.
A new broom
Laura had been with her previous employer over 7 years, and until recently she’d been happy enough; the job was not high powered or exciting, consisting largely of data entry and producing reports, but she enjoyed feeling that she was making a contribution to her team, she liked getting out of the house and mixing with other people, and the money came in handy.
The trouble started when her old department manager left. The new manager was obviously keen to make an impression with the powers that be, and as the saying goes, “a new broom sweeps clean”. He lost no time in throwing his weight around. There was going to be a tightening up of standards on all fronts, he said. He would be introducing weekly team meeetings, as well as monthly one-to-ones, to check up on everybody’s progress and keep things on track.
Laura wasn’t worried; she’d been well-regarded by her last boss, her supervisor was pretty hands off and had always let her get on with her work with minimal interference, and her appraisals had never flagged up any problems. She was confident she would soon earn the new manager’s trust and approval.
It was a massive shock to her when in the first one-to-one he launched into a lengthy tirade about the quality of her work, the fact that she had missed a couple of deadlines and made some errors, and that various of her internal customers had apparently expressed dissatisfaction with her performance. If she didn’t pull her socks up, he would be considering taking formal action under the Performance Management process.
She burst into tears when she told her husband about it that evening. She didn’t get a wink of sleep that night, turning it over and over in her mind. Had she let her standards slip? Was her work really full of errors? Had she been deluding herself when she thought she was doing a good job?
Laura felt dreadful the next day, but went into work extra early, determined to prove her new manager was wrong about her performance. She stayed late to double check everything and make sure there were no grounds for criticism.
But the negativity from her manager was soon compounded by feedback from her supervisor. Suddenly, it seemed she could do nothing right. Every time she opened an email from either of them, it was picking up on something she hadn’t delivered on time, or that was not in the correct format, or that contained some minor error or other. She was also berated in front of the team in several of the weekly team meetings, which she found humiliating. Although her alleged shortcomings were all trivial, and she recognised that the pair of them were nit-picking, the cumulative effect on her confidence and her enjoyment of work was devastating.
It took her a while to realise that she was being bullied – she thought that was what happened in the school playground, not in the workplace. And she didn’t even want to consider the possibility that her age or the fact that she was the only female in the department had anything to do with the way she was being treated. One thing was for sure, however. They clearly didn’t want her there.
But she was determined not to be beaten. She started taking the laptop home in the evenings and at weekends to ensure she didn’t miss any deadlines. She put in hours of unpaid overtime, checking and re-checking her work, determined to ensure that her performance would be above reproach. Her husband was worried about her working too hard, but she wouldn’t listen to him. She had to get things back on track, and if that meant working a few additional hours, that was just what needed to be done.
A downward spiral
The sleepless nights continued. Every night, Laura would wake up in the wee small hours, panicking about something she had forgotten to do, or feeling she needed to check something again, just in case… She started feeling physically sick with worry every morning as she got ready for work. And ironically, the more tired and worried she became, the more mistakes she made, and the longer everything took to accomplish. She couldn’t seem to think straight, and she kept forgetting things. She was descending into a downward spiral both physically and mentally, and couldn’t see her way forward at all.
One morning as she sat at the station awaiting her train, she felt dreadful: dizzy, nauseous, and hot. The train came and went, but she didn’t get on it, she simply couldn’t face going in that day. She started crying, and couldn’t stop. She phoned her husband at work, who told her to get herself straight to the surgery for an emergency appointment with her GP.
She poured out her heart to the GP, who was very understanding, and signed her off for a month with work-related stress. She was offered anti-depressants but didn’t want to take them. She did, however, agree to take a mild sleeping tablet on a short-term basis, just to break the cycle of insomnia and help her get back onto an even keel.
Within a fortnight, she was back in the surgery, suffering from a bad bout of cluster headaches. She then got a number of cold sores, followed by a very unpleasant urinary infection for which she needed antibiotics. Her GP explained that her immune system had been compromised by all the stress and lack of sleep, and that she needed a complete break to rest and recuperate. She was signed off work for a further six weeks.
Health comes first
It was at that point that Laura finally realised the victory was not worth the battle. By doggedly continuing to try to win her new manager round, she had destroyed her own peace of mind and damaged her health. That was too high a price to pay, for any job. Her husband was very relieved; he had been telling her for months that she needed to get out of that place, and now finally she was listening to him. He helped her write her resignation letter and walked with her to the post office. When it dropped into the sack, it felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from both their shoulders.
So that’s why Laura is not in paid employment at the moment. But she’s not sitting idly at home; she has joined an art class at the local Adult Education College which she thoroughly enjoys, and she volunteers at the local Charity Shop two mornings a week. She will start looking for another job, possibly part-time, when she feels the time is right. Meanwhile her priority is staying happy and healthy, and sleeping well at night.
I could have told Laura she should have fought harder for her job: reported the abuse to HR, raised a formal grievance, or threatened to take the company to an Employment Tribunal for age and sex discrimination. I could have said she shouldn't have let her managers get away with it. But I didn't. Because I realised she simply did not have the strength to cope with any more stress. Instead, I assured her she had done the right thing in leaving, even with no other job to go to, for the sake of her health. Health is the most important thing we have, and no job is worth sacrificing your health for. I know Laura will be ok in the end: when you hit rock bottom, the only way is up.
Sadly, Laura's story is far from unusual. If you have ever suffered bullying or harassment at work, you might like to help with some important research I am conducting into this damaging phenomenon. Click on this link: http://www.mthornehr.co.uk/bullying-at-work-survey/ ;to complete a brief and totally anonymous survey I am conducting. Your input will help raise awareness of this insidious problem so that action can be taken to make it stop.Thank you.
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