What To Do If A Bully Targets You

Yes, you've read this title correctly and yes, you're still in the "Post 50" column in HuffPost. Bullying isn't just for kids. Although we have no estimates on its prevalence in the adult population, we do know that being teased or poked fun at by co-workers, family members, neighbors, or acquaintances is a highly stressful experience.

One of the few studies on adult bullying was carried out by a Danish team investigating workplace stress. University of Copenhagen researcher Annie Hogh and colleagues (2012) sampled over 1,000 workers from 55 workplaces to learn about the impact of workplace bullying on physiological and psychological measures of stress. They defined workplace bullying as negative interpersonal acts on the job which victims cannot cope with or control. The participants in the study rated the extent to which they experienced workplace bullying in the form of social isolation, direct harassment, intimidating behavior, work-related criticism, and physical violence. They rated their psychological stress levels in terms of the extent to which they experienced intrusive thoughts, avoidance behavior, and hyper-arousal. The researchers also measured the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).

All forms of workplace bullying were stressful. The kind of bullying that caused the most stress involved outright harassment and intimidating behavior. However, the subtler form of bullying in which co-workers engage in social isolation of the target proved highly stressful as well. If you've ever been ostracized, you know how painful it can be. You assume that the shunning is somehow your fault. It shows that you must truly have some fatal flaw if others are going to purposefully stay away from you. Perhaps the experience triggers old memories from your pre-teen or teen years, when the cool kids in the class refused to include you in their plans and activities. Unfortunately, the more you question yourself, the more you feel you deserve to be left out, and the more your doubts become self-perpetuating. Also unfortunately, social isolation may be stage 1 of what your co-workers have planned for you, and over time their behavior becomes even more abusive. As they become emboldened by the fact that no one is stopping them, their behavior escalates to outright ridicule, humiliation, and aggressive acts.

Even if the bullying never reaches this point, the stress you're feeling can have a host of unhappy outcomes. Your health suffers, you feel depressed, your self-esteem takes a nose dive, and you may be so preoccupied that you can't think clearly while at work. Instead of focusing on the tasks you need to perform, you're wondering whether someone is poking fun at you behind your back. It's possible that you start slipping up, and your mistakes or slower level of output leads your boss to criticize you as well. Should your co-workers see what's happening, their behavior will be reinforced, and the taunting will only intensify.

The second form of workplace bullying involves uncivil or rude treatment by your supervisors. They may not intentionally be trying to shame or harm you, but instead be sending comments your way that have the same net result. In an experimental simulation on college students, Quinnipiac University psychologist Gary Giumetti and colleagues shared either supportive or uncivil, rude, or sarcastic emails from "supervisors" while the students completed a math task. Students who received the critical emails performed more poorly than those who received supportive emails. According to the theory underlying the study, supervisors who berate their employees for their lack of productivity actually contribute to their becoming less productive in the future by sapping them of mental energy.

Most supervisors probably don't intentionally harass their employees; in fact, if they did, they'd be subject to rebuke from their own bosses. However, they may fail to take the time to examine their wording carefully enough to avoid getting a sensitive employee's nose out of joint. After the initial exposure to a harsh email, whatever the intent of the author, the result is a worker whose mental resources become drained. This can be enough to turn an average worker into one who makes mistakes or worse, develops chronic stress-related health problems.

What do you do if someone in the workplace is bullying you? The first step is to recognize the warning signs in terms of your own stress levels. Are you feeling tired, anxious, or just generally distracted? Have you stopped looking forward to going to work or perhaps started to dread actually entering the office, store, or factory floor? Are you eating more or less, drinking more or less alcohol, getting in fights at home, and having difficulty with your sleep? These signs that something is wrong may lead you to be able to pinpoint the cause as being due to the way coworkers or supervisors are treating you.

Step #2 is to conduct a realistic assessment of your situation. It's quite possible that you're right, and someone is intentionally engaging in those negative interpersonal acts. However, try to take a step back. Are those potentially-snubbing fellow workers gathering around the water cooler really talking about you or purposefully leaving you out? Maybe they just want to share some gossip among themselves. Perhaps they don't think you're interested in the topic of conversation whether it's the local sports team, which brand of baby diapers to use, or the latest world news. It's also possible that they're trying to soothe each other's feelings about something completely unrelated to you, not realizing that they're doing it at your expense. That boss sending you emails littered with exclamation points and capital letters ("GET IT DONE NOW!!!") may just have bad "nettiquete," or maybe he or she is being terrorized by the higher-ups and doesn't mean to humiliate or scold you. An email that may seem sarcastic to you ("I wish you'd get that done today") only seems sarcastic when read with the wrong intonation ("I wish you'd get it done [sigh, eye roll] TODAY"). Maybe your boss was in a hurry and forgot to say "Thanks" or "Please."

If you take these two steps and still feel bullied, option #3 is to preserve your physical and mental health by seeking consultation. Depending on the size and nature of your company, there may be someone you can turn to for confidential advice. This person may recommend some sort of intervention for the taunting office-mates or uncivil supervisor that could include a visit from the human resources department talking about the dangers of workplace bullying. If you are being bullied, you may be reluctant to ask for such a seemingly radical solution, but when done correctly, the intervention should seem like a generalized seminar being given to everyone in the company or division of the company.

Should the bullying be coming from office-mates, and you have good relations with your boss, then it's just plain smart to confide in him or her. Otherwise, the stress that's eating away at your health and productivity will seem to have no apparent cause and you really could get in trouble.

However you decide to approach the problem, it's key that you take action to stop the bullying. While you're about it, it's also important to look out for your fellow co-workers who are being targeted by others, whether fellow employees or supervisors. At the very least, by reaching out a hand to an oppressed colleague, you'll help to create a more positive and hence, productive, workplace environment for all.

I would love to hear from you to find out if you're a target, or have been, of workplace bullying. Please take this poll and register your response:

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7 Ways To Smooth Over The Age Gap At Work (Or How To Behave If Your Boss Is Your Kid's Age)