Is there someone you work with who is rude, abusive or inappropriately demanding — in short, a bully? If so, you’re not alone. According to a September 2007 survey conducted by the nonprofit Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) and Zogby International, workplace bullying has become a veritable epidemic. More than a third (37 percent) of American workers report having been bullied at work — most often by their bosses — and for almost half (45 percent) of these workers, the resulting stress affects their health.
Fear not, says WBI director and social psychologist Gary Namie, PhD, coauthor of The Bully at Work (Sourcebooks, 2003), who offers us sage advice on how best to deal with the stress caused by a workplace bully. “Remember that child-abuse motto, ‘Love shouldn’t hurt’?” he asks. “Well, work shouldn’t hurt either. I’m not saying it has to completely fulfill your destiny, but it shouldn’t tear you down.”
A Bullying Boss or Coworker
Most often, says Namie, bullying at work takes one or more of three forms:
- Verbal abuse, intimidation, personal insults, yelling and humiliation in front of coworkers.
- Threats to your job, personal safety and family made behind closed doors so they can be denied later.
- Sabotage, or destroying social relationships at work through rumor, innuendo and character assassination.
Barriers to Overcome
Because bullying is technically nonphysical, it can be hard for people to identify. “If you’re the target, you tend to be in denial because you can’t believe someone would be cruel just for sport,” says Namie. In fact, it’s often a family physician who ultimately roots out the bullying, because symptoms of stress become physically apparent as ailments.
Shame. Even after workplace bullying is identified, shame often prevents people from acknowledging their situation. “It’s not easy because people feel trapped: Workplace bullying is much like domestic violence, except here, the abuser is on the payroll,” Namie explains. “Targeted people rarely want to draw outside attention to the bullying behavior. Instead of telling other people about it, they stay silent, which makes them sicker.”
Fear of confrontation. Even if denial and shame are overcome, many people fear retaliation if they speak up.
How to Cope
Take care of yourself. First, try to mitigate the impact of the stress through proper self-care, including good nutrition, exercise and sleep. “Workplace bullying really rocks people,” says Namie, “so if you weren’t already in a fitness program or got distracted from one, this is the time to get on track.”
Name the problem. Recovery starts with acknowledging what is happening to you and getting clear that the other person’s bad behavior is not your fault. It’s important, experts note, that you don’t internalize the bullying by blaming yourself or becoming a passive recipient. “If your expectation is that you need to take it and not fight back, you become your own worst enemy,” Namie says.
Take some time off. Taking a break from work offers many benefits, including checking in on your mental and physical health, affording you time to research the policies governing this behavior in your workplace, and allowing you to shift your attention from emotional self-pity and the accompanying constant stress.
Make your case. Be assertive and try to regain control. “You should try and make your case, even if the outcome is not good, because, ultimately, it’s better for your health,” says Namie. “Find the highest-level person to whom you can explain your situation. If that person continues to back the bully, you’ll need to leave, but you will do so with your dignity intact and the knowledge that you did what you could.”
Transform Enemy Thinking
Loving-kindness meditation empowers us to feel compassion for the difficult people in our lives — and, in the process, keep our own hearts and minds clear.
The practice of “metta” — or loving-kindness meditation — is a bit like taking your heart to the laundry, says Buddhist teacher and psychologist Sylvia Boorstein, PhD, a cofounder of the Woodacre, Calif.–based Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the author, most recently, of Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life (Ballantine Books, 2007). “If you do it, you unearth the stains that you’re harboring, and you rehabilitate yourself of the heartache of holding a grudge,” Boorstein says.
ORIGIN: Loving-kindness meditation is Buddhist in origin. It can be used both to send blessings to others (including difficult others) and to calm and heal yourself. As Boorstein has written, history has the Buddha teaching metta to frightened monks who were about to go deep into the jungle to meditate.
SIMPLE STEPS: The idea is to generate positive thoughts and feelings while focusing on the intended recipient of your thoughts. You can choose your own metta phrases to recite or simply adopt a series of standard phrases like these: May you feel protected and safe / May you feel contented and pleased / May your physical body support you with strength / May your life unfold smoothly with ease. Use “I” instead of “you” if you are intending the blessings for yourself.
You can say the blessings out loud or in your head. Either way, before uttering them, take a deep breath, relax and allow a smile to come to your face, Boorstein counsels. You can practice metta regularly and as needed.
“We offer metta retreats at Spirit Rock, but people can also practice at home or take a five-minute break at work, walking around the building and saying a set of metta blessings for the people in their lives,” she says.
BENEFITS: Short breaks of formal metta practice keep your mind and emotions centered and prepared for anything. “If you exercise your body regularly, it leaves you better prepared to run fast when someone is chasing you down the street,” Boorstein explains. “Similarly, metta practice keeps your mind and emotions in order so that they can support you through rough situations.” And, while it may seem strange to send your enemies kind wishes, Boorstein emphasizes that our connection to ourselves and to others is actually two sides of the same coin: “Metta is really a self-centered practice, because we are most happy when we feel positively connected to other people. You don’t have to love everyone in the world, but you don’t have to have hostility in your heart, either.”