I have been ‘bullied’.
I should declare however that that time in my life feels like light years away. Although a distant memory almost every day I am grateful that this time is consigned to history. I remember regularly now how fortunate I now am to be able to enjoy the simple things in life again. One of the things that I lost during that time was just that, the ability to take pleasure in things around me including my family, whom I love dearly. When one is psychologically walking around with a feeling that the firing squad could take aim at any moment everything else seems not so important.
I think the notion of where the threshold lies between being bullied and being subject to bullying behaviours depends entirely on how this behaviour makes the recipient feel. Was it just me? This was the question asked by one of my anonymous contributors to the series on bullying that I have just run on Pharmacy in Practice.
“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.”
So does it stand to reason that it is easier to bully someone of the ‘snowflake’ generation?
I’m not sure. I think the term ‘snowflake’ could be doing a disservice to a generation that has had to grow up in a confusingly complex world. The world now is so fast-changing and exposure to media happens at an early age. Expectations in terms of what it means to find happiness are through the roof due to social media.
Where does bullying happen?
Where there is a power differential bullying can happen. The example of this power differential often cited is the manager/employee relationship. The manager has the power. The manager has the ability to make the employee feel absolutely terrible by exploiting the power over the employee. In practice, this might include the manager, or indeed the subordinate, doing one of the following things; (1)
- Spreading malicious rumours.
- Ignoring or excluding someone from work or social activities.
- Deliberately withholding information.
- Humiliating someone in public.
- Giving someone unachievable tasks or overloading them, setting impossible deadlines.
- Removing responsibilities or giving someone trivial tasks to do.
- Overbearing supervision.
- Misuse of power or position.
- Constant criticism of a competent staff member and undermining behaviour.
- Undervaluing someone’s contribution.
- Blocking promotion or training opportunities.
- Personal insults, name-calling, constant teasing or making offensive, for example, racist comments.
- Demanding someone works extra hours.
- Unwelcome sexual advances.
- Shouting at someone.
- Physical attacks on a person or their property.
Snowflake or not, if I was subjected to one or more of these behaviours in an already pressurised pharmacy environment over a sustained period I think my resolve would eventually crumble. Over the last few months, I have been running a series on Pharmacy in Practice looking into the area of bullying. The response was quite unbelievable.
Interestingly every contributor requested to remain anonymous. There was real fear in the voice of everyone I spoke to.
“I wanted others to read about my personal experience. I would like to be anonymous in every way possible. Any suspicion of an accusation or insinuation from me about bullying would be career suicide.”
The bullying described did also happen because there was a power differential, however, this power was not always exhibited in the way expected. In one account a pharmacist described being bullied by the dispenser they were working with.
“The dispenser had power locally. By this I mean this person had been with the company for many years. The dispenser knew almost all the customers by name and some of their relatives work there. The dispenser behaved like they owned the pharmacy.”
Lot’s of this stuff resonated with my own experience, to be honest. That said it is not a competition and the effect of all of this as mentioned depends on how it makes the victim feel.
Don’t be complicit
Group behaviour plays a big part in bullying on many occasions in my view. The bully will often act to maintain their position within the group. In the accounts in the bullying series, this led to some extremely cruel behaviour by both the bully and others.
“I tried to put my foot down but realised I didn’t have a supportive area manager. I soon worked out that I was not going to get anywhere with taking disciplinary action of any sort. When I told my area manager about the particular incident of the dispenser not checking, essentially not doing the job of a dispenser the area manager turned around and asked if I say please when asking them to do anything. I recorded the dispenser shouting at me one day in the dispensary. I played the recording for my area manager. He just said ” you know you are not allowed to record without permission” nothing else followed.”
If you are reading this and you are that area manager please don’t dismiss bullying. Look out for the subtle cues. Imagine you are in a medical consultation and you are trying to understand why the patient has really come to see you today. The reason this is so important is the fact that bullying is often cumulative. I have worked for large multiples and it is my view that ‘group think’ happens in these closed, isolated environments. The pressure to hit targets makes people behave in very odd and often extreme ways. I urge you to keep sight of your own professional/personal moral compass and always do the right thing.
You might be the only hope for the person being bullied.
“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 wore 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.”
This account sent a shiver down my spine when I read it. The ‘group think’ and complicit disregard for someone who was quite clearly suffering was troubling. Why no-one would break ranks and support the victim, in this case, is sinister in my view. Perhaps it can be explained by the fact that this victim appears to be a high achiever. Therefore, her success may have made her superiors actually look foolish or inferior.
There are echoes here of other serious cases that have come to light only when the collective decision has been made not to stand for it anymore. Indeed the Jimmy Saville sexual abuse case comes to mind. Everyone knew it was happening but stayed quiet nonetheless. The #metoo campaign only came to light because one person broke ranks and told their story. Broke ranks from the collective denial and fearful suppression of facts that were difficult to stomach.
I believe from my own experience and from talking to these unfortunate victims that we have a massive problem with bullying in pharmacy.
Consequences of bullying
In preparing the bullying series I spoke to numerous people who had been bullied. One thing that resonated with me was the horrific personal impact the events had on the individuals.
“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.”
Bullying can have a devastating effect on the victim and seriously impact their health and mental wellbeing. It can lead to loss of self-confidence and self-esteem and feelings of anxiety, humiliation, frustration and anger. It can also give rise to sleep or eating disorders, depression, alcohol or drug abuse and even suicidal thoughts. It may result in absence from work and can severely damage both work and home life. (1)
The feeling of being trapped in a situation is crippling. In my experience, I found myself in this position and could relate to some of the issues raised by the victims I spoke to. I felt trapped and powerless. Vulnerable. I was a young pharmacist beginning my career so reputation mattered. I was told I needed to ‘fit in’. Therefore encountering an area manager who seemingly put my reputation, and income, in jeopardy almost ruined me. My outlet was blogging. I actually went to my garage and started writing. It sounds daft I know. Writing not about my situation but instead, writing about how and why pharmacy in this country needs to be better. I chose my words carefully but I know that those people in question were reading and they knew why I was doing it. I found my self-respect again. I began to think.
So I am actually not a snowflake and neither in my view are the contributors to my series on bullying. These people are incredible and they have my respect. To articulate their situation, even anonymously, whilst living in fear is wonderfully courageous. The quiet, humble resilience they exhibit just to get through their day is quite amazing.
These people are suffering right now. They are trapped in that situation. The most resilient person will crumble eventually. Never assume it won’t happen to you because it might. If you are in a position of power please wear that power lightly. Be generous, be kind and check in to make sure you are not making an individual feel victimised.
And once the hurt passes and the subsequent simmering anger ebbs away try to summon the energy to be the best you can be and make everything you do about helping other people.
When I was at my lowest I summoned the energy to go to the garage, get on an exercise bike and started writing. This was my way out. I hope you find yours.