If you’re on the healing journey after surviving serial bullying one thing you can be sure of, the road could well be rocky.
You’re possibly feeling vulnerable and nervous about rejoining the workforce. You may be thinking, “If it’s happened before, it can happen again”, you may be annoyed with yourself for being "weak" in not standing up to the bully (there's some information on how we can bully ourselves here), and feel fearful. For some there will have been the workplace bullying AND self bullying – as if one alone wasn’t enough, you’re contending with a double whammy.
Basically you’re a nice person who got stung badly. You’ll remain a nice person but ideally learn a few skills to help prevent it happening again. Your character will remain attractive to the bullies in the world, simply because you have qualities they fear/envy/or whatever their motivation is. (Information about what bullies look for in Why me?)
What I'm offering here is not a one size fits all suggestion, but one tool to add to your toolkit that might be useful in some instances.
One of the things that many people have said to me is that they have an automatic "Yes" that kicks in when they’re being asked to do something at work.
From childhood we’ve been taught to be accommodating, helpful, to defer to those in authority, to be kind and help people out when they ask. We have NOT been taught to be alert for bullying behaviour or even to know what it is.
If you’re unsure what bullying behaviour is, have a look at The Angst and Anguish of workplace bullying (A in the A-Z Challenge) or How to Recognize Bullying Behaviour at Work (B in the A-Z Challenge) It’s good to read widely and be aware of what constitutes bullying.
The following is adapted from a post I wrote back in November last year.
Many of us regularly find ourselves getting overloaded at work and may have fallen into the habit of agreeing to all and sundry requests, even if they go against our better instincts for self-preservation. Sometimes however, the power imbalance between us and the boss is such that we feel pressured into agreeing - it's a subtle kind of bullying, and can have some negative long term ramifications if not nipped in the bud.
One client found herself habitually saying 'yes' to any request her boss put to her, even if it meant missing both morning tea and lunch breaks, and working unpaid overtime and consistent 'graveyard' shifts. Her health was clearly suffering and she was burnt out and miserable by the time she came to me. It had got to the stage where her boss had come to rely on her compliance and the situation needed a gentle shakeup.
Firstly, stop and think.
It sounds very simple, but many people find this first step overwhelming. Remember you may have been trained from childhood to be a “nice”, helpful person. Learning a new pattern of behaviour goes against the grain, and that may bring a sense of discomfort.
Many of us like to feel needed, and being asked to do things can also make us feel important (and there's nothing at all wrong with that - in moderation). In addition, some of us have grown up in cultures that encourage us to put our own needs down, possibly to keep the peace in our family, for religious reasons, and sometimes because one gender is seen to be more powerful (and deserving) than the other.
Some people describe a sinking feeling in the stomach when they pause to assess the situation, and believe they’ll be fired on the spot. It’s ok – pausing may be new and unfamiliar, it gets easier with practice! So, don't be hard on yourself if it's tough to pause before agreeing.
Secondly, ask a few questions. Is it urgent that you drop everything to, for instance, see this client immediately? Will the world fall apart if you use your lunch break to eat and digest your sandwich in peace? Does the patient need urgent assistance that only you can provide causing you to lose your 15 minute afternoon break? Who else is on the scene who could assist?
If you're being asked to take on an additional project unexpectedly it may be appropriate to say "Can I get back to you about that tomorrow morning?" It's a question that comes out as a statement - you may need to rehearse this one.
But please remember, this isn't a 'one size fits all' suggestion, and your response needs to be suitable, thoughtful and respectful, taking into account your personal situation.
Some bosses have developed the knack of catastrophising even the slightest mishap into a drama of world proportions. I worked with a manager like this some years ago, and the department was in a constant state of nervous anticipation waiting for the next 'catastrophe' to fall. It was draining, and led to increased staff 'mental health day' breaks simply to counteract the emotional exhaustion of dealing with the unreasonable and unnecessary demand for immediate action. Need I say, we weren't dealing with life and death situations, but routine, predictable everyday events.
By asking a couple of questions, your boss will quickly see that the pattern is changing. In the best scenarios, this leads to an increased level of professionalism and mutual respect. Interestingly, my clients who've begun using this technique state that their view of themselves begins to change from being a bit of a pushover to more confident and assured. Workplaces haven't fallen into anarchy, and in fact, the workplace culture has often improved.
Thirdly, if the request is reasonable, of course you'll agree graciously. You may choose to drop what you're doing and fulfil the request. In the process however, you'll have regained a sense of control, and a pattern that may have outlived its usefulness will begin to crumble.
If possible, find a trusted person to practice this with. There are times when rehearsing in your head is fine, this isn’t one of them. You need to hear your own voice and find the right words. To begin with, it's awkward and unfamiliar, and hearing yourself saying these new things can be quite unsettling.
There's more on recovering from bullying here.