In my previous blog, I talked about the prevalence of workplace bullying. Across industries, 27% of people will experience bullying. That number is significantly higher in the healthcare field however. Why is that? Any organization is more vulnerable to bullying during times of change and increased workload. In addition, healthcare organizations tend to have dense bureaucracies and rigid hierarchies that can make spotting and challenging bullying more difficult. But an often-overlooked factor is vicarious trauma.
What is vicarious trauma?
Most people do not bear daily witness to suffering. Vicarious trauma is the cumulative effect of witnessing trauma and it’s aftermath. The effects are similar to those of the trauma survivor: Generalized fear, hopelessness, negativity, sleep disturbances, and difficulty relating to others. If you recognize yourself here, you are overdue for some loving kindness. There’s no shame in it—it happens to everyone at some point (but that’s the subject of another blog).
Why do people bully?
Put a group of traumatized people in a high stress, high stakes environment and it’s no wonder that there is some bad behavior.
Sometimes, it’s deliberate and calculated. The person doing the bullying feels threatened and decides to take someone down. Most of the time, it’s emotional spill over and the person doing the bullying had no idea of the damage they are doing. They are just acting out their stress. The thing is, when you are under-staffed and overworked, it pays to be extra nice. There is just never a good time to treat people badly.
Wonder if you are the bully?
Ask. Ask your manager. Ask your team. Ask HR for a 360 review. Ask the people who don’t like you. Look for the indicators: Higher than average turnover, errors, absenteeism, and fewer applicants.
Who gets bullied?
NO ONE DESERVES TO BE BULLIED!
There are patterns however. You are more likely to be bullied if you are female, under 40, single, or are perceived of as different in some way.
This is a difficult fact, but it happens most often to people who don’t stand up for themselves. Those who think that if they just work harder, this will all go away. It won’t. You have a 66% chance of losing your job and you are more likely to be bullied on your next job.
What do we do?
As leaders, you have to pay attention and intervene in bullying situations. Every time you let something slide by, you are promoting a culture of bullying.
If you are being bullied, you have to square your shoulders and confront the behavior. I know, that is the one thing that you don’t want to do. But I’m not talking about a show down. Just say, “Please don’t talk to me that way.” Then walk away. You are not trying to convince the person doing the bullying; you are just putting them on notice. If the behavior persists, you document and make the business case to leadership that this is not beneficial to the organization. Site turnover and absenteeism rates. Note moral and recruitment issues.
As an individual, you deserve some support for the stress you are carrying. For the organization, there is a benefit to having someone from the outside intervene. I can help you bully-proof your culture so that bullying simply can’t happen. I start with a culture and communication assessment and devise a plan specific to your organization.
Here’s the thing – bullying only happens if the organizational culture allows it. Change the culture and you bully-proof your workplace. You have to come to a common understanding about acceptable and unacceptable behavior and then provide the necessary supports and consequences.