Shaped by my upbringing
My childhood shaped my adult life. My parents both were brought up in deprived areas, with little money and in my dad’s case, not much family support. My sister and I were under no illusion that education was important and something to be taken very seriously and not wasted. My mum spent my childhood studying O and A levels at night school always believing she wasn’t clever enough. My dad was and still is highly principled. This is in part due to growing up in the RAF after running away from home aged 16. He had a very strong sense of right, wrong. Fair play runs through my family. My sister and I were never allowed to win a game unless we had genuinely won it. It taught us at an early stage that working hard brings rewards and that nothing is worth having unless you’ve earned it.
I was taught to think independently from an early age. I was expected to know my own mind and not to be overly influenced by other people.
“What do YOU think” was a common question when we asked about things we had read or seen.
Early experiences of bullying
I experienced bullying all through school, from juniors until I left the sixth form. The perpetrator was, on the whole, the same person but on occasion, others took up the bullying baton. I feel it didn’t help matters, in retrospect. I grew a thick shell early. I learned to retreat into it. I presented an image all day at school and it disintegrated as soon as I got through the front door in the afternoon. I was a ‘keener’, a ‘teacher’s pet’, a ‘good example’. As someone who is uncomfortable in full glare the attention, these early achievements brought made me feel uncomfortable.
University was fine. Hard work is rewarded. You can go through University more or less anonymously should you choose to. I met my husband in my first year. He has protected me ever since. He is my safe person.
Bullying in the workplace
I’ve experienced workplace bullying on a number of occasions.
The first whilst working for a large multiple pharmacy during the year between degrees. I was attempting to get pharmacy experience before studying for my MPharm. Somewhere in my parent’s house is a letter from their head office that states that whilst they agreed that accusations made about my conduct could not be evidenced, they had never been informed there was an issue with my work, there was nothing from the pharmacist/store manager to explain the reasons for telling me that I was no longer needed, they still felt that ‘constructive dismissal’ was a term they were ‘uncomfortable’ with. A cheque for a month’s salary softened the blow a little. I was left wondering, however, if it was my fault and whether I really had ‘asked too many questions’ which was the reason I was given when I asked what exactly I had done wrong.
The second was during my pre-reg and post-graduate diploma. This involved different people but the old favourite characteristic of exclusion was applied to me. I wondered then if I tried too hard. I would often help the people who excluded me; nor did I try too hard to pretend that I didn’t care? Perhaps I appeared aloof? I worked hard, often staying late to complete coursework, photocopy stuff for study days. My husband was working away during the week so I had no reason to go home. Perhaps being independent and being a bit older than the others in the same posts made a difference? Either way, the mask of indifference can be a helpful accessory and eventually, if you wear it enough, you even start believing that you’re not bothered.
The third was a line manager. It crept up and lasted for years. This was a step up. I’ve never completely understood what happened. About four years in, I realised that I was having trouble breathing, literally there were times that I couldn’t catch my breath. I started to notice that I was fine at the weekend but come Monday morning, I’d walk into work and be feeling pretty unwell by the time I reached the hospital entrance. This bullying took the form of persistent undermining. Comments in meetings, emails with a threatening undertone, being ‘advised’ to take a particular course on return from maternity leave and then discovering that the other option had been offered to someone else whilst I was off work; being told to apply for a job I didn’t want because otherwise, ‘they’ would make sure I didn’t progress any further in this organization. That kind of thing.
A colleague once told me, admittedly after a few shandies, that the person responsible had admitted to them, that they didn’t like me. They found my ‘confidence’ annoying and they were further annoyed I was making a success of a role they had forced me into, with the intention of sidelining me. No doubt, the work ethic instilled in me as a child was to blame. You’ve got to make the most of any opportunity. You never know when the next one will arise.
A further incident occurred involving that person. This became my first encounter with NHS human resources procedures. It was clear from the outset that ‘seniority’ was given more credence than evidence or truthfulness. After many months, a letter was issued apologising for my misinterpretation of their behaviour. It was a hard lesson but one that as it transpired, taught me to be on my guard. Hope for the best, prepare for worst.
I moved on. I started to breathe again.
That person, it turned out had not singled me out. In fact a few years later an investigation concluded the behaviour towards me was also exhibited to many others. As is so often the case, they haven’t really served any kind of punishment. A little inconvenience perhaps, changing jobs. Albeit to be moved on again but now I see them fairly frequently in pharmacy press, being lauded and talking about patients and teamwork and professionalism.
That all said, it helped me to think that perhaps it wasn’t me, that it was their insecurities that drove them to behave that way. I pity them for the lie that they live.
Moving on to the fourth experience. This time, I was not in a supportive environment. I was in a foreign place; a place where pharmacists kept a low profile, where challenging other professionals was frowned upon and where being a professionally assertive woman was only ever seen as threatening. Where a few elite members made all the decisions and everyone else turned up and went home untroubled. I should have known my place.
I did not belong there. I should have known; going in somewhere, a new face, where networking extended only as far as ‘the boys’ lunchtime gathering in the canteen, where ‘we don’t do it like that here’ was the departmental motto. I was never going to fit in.
Despite the problems, I’d had the best colleagues in my previous place – my best friends are still there. We’d supported each other, talked about difficult cases, asked each other for advice. We’d had fun.
This new place was no fun. Doctors ruled without reproach at times. Pharmacists were mostly not seen and certainly not heard. I was asked to work with a new service and to let the manager know if there were any problems. There were lots of problems. The details aren’t important but I was worried enough to keep notes (having learnt from my previous experiences).
I went to my boss.
I went to the service manager.
I went to the clinical lead.
At first, I thought I was making progress and that things would improve. Then it all changed.
First, a meeting occurred where I was ripped apart and my right to practice and my professional standards were questioned before swiftly being destroyed. I would be allowed to continue in that service provided I didn’t question things. I wasn’t allowed to monitor prescribing, I wasn’t allowed to comment on whether taking money from pharmaceutical companies compromised prescribing decisions etc. I left working in that service, thinking that would be the end of that. From the outside, I would be able to get on with my job, offer support but be free of the daily diatribe, the whispers in corners and the direct comments about how I should just ‘shut up’.
I was wrong, however. Apparently, no one was allowed to stand up to those people and ‘get away with it’. A colleague reported a discussion of how my career would be destroyed as a consequence of my actions in raising concerns. They certainly gave it a good go. Years followed – letters from those people, one in particular whose position appeared to place them above any kind of natural law or the actual law; accusing me of causing direct harm to patients and questioning how many more people I would harm before anyone stopped me. Letters to the GPs who asked me to work with them, due to the deficiencies of the service I had raised concerns about; questioning my decision making and advising them against taking my advice. Accusations that I was only in the post because of nepotism – apparently all my colleagues in my own department shared this view. An accusation from a colleague, someone I had known since University. Spurious at the time, fabricated in our ‘mediation’ session and subsequently, named as someone who had wanted my post, in an investigation, I was later subjected to.
Collusion at every turn.
I became ill and as a consequence now I live with a diagnosis of chronic anxiety disorder. The physical symptoms of anxiety are often not recognised but for me, this was more than just feeling nervous. I became so breathless that even walking was difficult. Exercise helped but at times, just raising my heart rate by going for a run or out on my bike caused me to enter a state of total panic. Stopping on the way to work in order to vomit in a layby became part of my daily routine. The mask that I had worn for years, the walls I had built around me and that protected me were being chipped away and the real me, the one that really isn’t very confident, that constantly questions themselves, that doesn’t like confrontation, that just wants a quiet life, was starting to show. I was really scared.
I tried to stand up to the bullies. None of it made any difference. My story was never heard. I quickly realised that the truth wasn’t that important when you’re taking on a system. It appeared that no matter how much evidence I presented, it was never considered with as much brevity as the allegations made by someone perceived to be in a more elevated position. My appearance was commented on – the fact I presented myself well, wore make-up and a nice dress to my interviews.
Colleagues quickly got bored with supporting me – the denigration of my profession wasn’t seen as a particular issue when it was mostly directed at me. I am a difficult person, demanding and high maintenance said my own boss said in one investigation. I was later told that my persistence frustrated them and I should learn when to walk away.
The truth is, it’s my persistence that keeps me going. I was taught that the right path isn’t always the easiest one but being true to your values is really important. I’ve been to the point of giving up and decided that I wouldn’t let ‘them’ win. I decided to use the pain and frustration to push me forwards rather than push me under.
My sense of fair play has not diminished. I have been a whistleblower (I have a letter that says so) and even though nothing changed and the bullies and defamers and harassers haven’t been made to answer for their behaviour. I won’t forget. But, I will no longer let it rule me.
I have been let down by managers, by policies and guidelines that weren’t followed, by men and by women but mostly by a system that is scared to challenge the historical hierarchy and scared to reveal the truth. I have also let myself down. I allowed a situation to take over my life, I allowed myself to start thinking that maybe everyone else was right about me, after all, history has kept repeating itself. I have been bullied since I was 8. It must be me?
This author wished to remain anonymous.