How to stand up to bullies in the workplace

When you think of workplace bullying, you might picture an angry boss yelling at frightened staff. But often, bullying comes in more subtle forms, which are harder to detect and can go unaddressed. And colleagues might be the perpetrators.

Whether obvious or subtle, bullying is extremely damaging, both to the individual and to the workplace, which is why you need to call out on such behaviour at the time of the incident (more on that later).

What is workplace bullying?

The Fair Work Ombudsman defines bullying as repeated acts of unreasonable behaviour toward any employee in an organisation, and behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety.  

It could be a deliberate attempt to undermine your ability to carry out your work, such as unsustainable workloads or removing resources. It could be a deliberate attempt to remove your personal power, such as withholding information or excluding you. Or it could be a personal attack on you, unrelated to work.

A real story

Registered Nurse and APNA member, Jackie Eyles, knows how it feels to be intimidated as a young graduate—it happened to her 19 years ago and ended with her resignation.

For almost three years, an older colleague with whom she worked at the hospital, would make snide remarks about what she did or what she said, while sharing long shifts in the operating theatre. It was relentless, with an underlying tone of ‘you’re not good enough’ or ‘who do you think you are, just because you’re a nursing graduate?’ As time wore on, her confidence took a beating, she got anxious and dreaded going to work. She even began to doubt herself—that maybe she was the problem. But she persisted, because she wanted to build her experience in operating theatre.

‘I tried to ignore her statements and negativity until my self-esteem hit rock bottom and I finally asked for assistance,’ says Jackie.

Those were the days where there were no clear protocols and policies in place to deal with bullying. But here’s the good news. She found a one day a week job with a general practice, then went on to cover a 12-month maternity leave opportunity, and never left primary health care nursing.

‘Luckily for me, I found my home in general practice, where I can be part of a community, to support the people in this community,’ explains Jackie who is also a mentor for nurses new to general practice as part of APNA’s Transition to Practice Program.

‘Mentoring is an incredibly helpful resource in supporting and debriefing nurses.

‘My top tip for new graduates affected by workplace bullying is to seek professional help from a counsellor or psychologist, someone who’s not connected to your workplace, who can help you build resilience and move forward.’

Handle the incident at the time of attack

It takes courage to stand up to a bully, but saying and doing something at the time will build your strength. Workplace bullying is about power—standing up in that moment will change the bullying dynamic. For example, counter bullying remarks or actions and hold them accountable for what they just said.

Don’t comply

Confrontation can be uncomfortable, but you must not fear it. If you don’t resist bullying, you’ll be an easy target for more attacks. You don’t have to tolerate such behaviour even if others around you take it. Use assertive body language—stand tall, pull back your shoulders, speak clearly and firmly. You have more influence than you think, and this can often put a stop to the problem.

Identify the problem

Get a clear idea of what you’re dealing with. Keep a record of all incidents—what happened and when. If it’s about the quality of your work, reflect on your productivity and performance and objectively assess if the behaviour was warranted. How are you performing? Do you need support? Keep close track of feedback and reviews.  

Raise the issue with management

Don’t hesitate to act beyond speaking directly to the bully. Take intimidation seriously. Bullies don’t usually zoom on just one person and it’s likely that others are experiencing the same problem. If it’s your manager who is the problem, go one level further to speak to the manager’s senior.

File a complaint

People worry about the repercussions of making a formal complaint, often second guessing if they’re overreacting. If the situation is serious and there doesn’t appear to be any change in behaviour, you can file a complaint. There are legal protections that outlaw retaliation against people who file workplace complaints.

APNA’s Nurse Support Line

If you want to chat to an experienced nurse consultant to discuss a workplace bullying situation, give APNA’s Nurse Support Line a call. The APNA Nurse Support Line is a national help service for APNA members delivered by expert primary health care nurses and operates Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm. Nurses considering joining APNA are given one complimentary call—consider it a taster for one of the many perks of being an APNA member. 

Be part of your professional flock and watch your career soar. Join online as a member today for as little as $24.50 a month!

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