We asked the experts what to do if your your boss is making your life hell at work.
Last week, the government finally released the results of its investigation into Home Secretary Priti Patel. The report found that Priti created a workplace environment of bullying, though it stated she may have done so unknowingly. Calls have been made for her resignation and for her to be fired. Neither happened and - in protest- the prime minister’s own ethics advisor quit.
But who I can’t stop thinking about in all of this, are Priti Patel’s employees, the ones who feel they have been screamed at and bullied. I can’t stop wondering what life is like for them now, in the wake of the report, with their boss still in the building. They are also on my mind because they are not the only team who are suffering with a tyrannical boss. Far from it, in fact. A recent survey by employment law specialists Kew Law found that 70% of UK employees have been bullied by their boss in the last three years.
One of those is Sophie Benning*, 29, from Bristol. Two years ago, she left her job in a corporate law firm because of a bad boss. He cut her out of meetings, publicly undermined her- often in front of clients- would rage and scream at her about tasks, often late at night, frequently with unreasonable requests.
“He was so mean,” she says, “nearly every day, I still have dreams about him. If anything bad is happening in a dream, he is the one orchestrating it.”
Eventually, Sophie felt she had no choice but to leave, moving to join an in-house legal team at another corporate company. Going to HR, she said, felt helpless, and the culture was so ingrained; “It was never, ever going to change. If I had spoken out, I felt my career would be jeopardised.”
“I think part of the problem is the expectation is always that it's going to be brutal and cutthroat and the culture is pretty severe in corporate law,” she explains, “I think that just exacerbates and in lots of ways forgives a lot of the terrible behaviour. It then almost becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. People assume they have to behave that way, and it attracts people who are more likely to be bullying type characters.”
The problem, of course, is not just in corporate law, or in Westminster, but in myriad workplaces. Frances Harrison*, 26, left a job as a personal assistant in a PR firm last year, all as a result of her boss’s persistent bullying.
“One of the reasons it was so hard to deal with, was that it was so hard to explain her behaviour,” she explains, “One minute she would be lovely and giving me gifts, the next she would be screaming down the phone to me at 1am about something totally irrational. Whenever I tried to talk to her about it, she acted like it was my problem- as if I was going crazy. I both hated her and desperately wanted to please her. It was a toxic kind of stockholm syndrome and gaslighting!”
“In the end I felt my only option was to leave,” she says, “HR didn’t really know what to do with my complaint, I knew she wasn’t going to change and that reporting her would only make her behaviour worse. They offered to redistribute me in the company but she was so senior, I worried her reach would affect my job prospects.”
So, if you feel bullied in your job- is leaving really your only course of action? I asked several experts to weigh in on what we can really do to understand and tackle a Bully Boss. …
Know Your Bully
“Too often we think ‘eccentric’ bosses equate to geniuses,” says Cate Sevilla, author of ‘How to Work without Losing your Mind’ (out Jan 14), “What this often means is that this boss is probably a bully, and their ‘eccentric’ behaviour is probably irrational and is destabilising their staff.”
“But we have a very outdated model for how we view bosses,” she continues, “I think we mistakenly respect aggressive and forceful behaviour with strength, and these are the kinds of people who get rewarded. In fact, they are often just bullies. Just look at characters in films like Miranda Priestly, we think that’s what a boss should be. Or real life people like Trump- people elected him President!”
It can often be hard to identify exactly what kind of bully boss you have too as, as Cate notes, often their behaviour can be passive aggressive and in the form of stray comments, calls at inappropriate times and pushing of your personal boundaries.
“I would recommend really avidly documenting your bosses behaviour so that you can keep tabs on it and really understand it,” says Cate, “You need to really concretely know what is actually going on. Are they micromanaging and chasing you? What do they do which causes your stress levels to go up- is what they are doing unnecessary? Know what specific behaviour is affecting you- then you can think about how to change that.”
Tackle your Bully
Lynn Taylor is a leading workplace and career expert and also the author of Tame Your TOT (That’s Terrible Office Tyrant.) Her thought process is that 99% of bad bosses are behaving like actual toddlers- so why not treat them as such? She outlines two key approaches- both for the immediate and long term.
“In the moment it is a good idea to mirror back what your boss has said to you,” she explains, “This helps so that your boss feels like they have been heard. It also helps you to unpack the information into bite sized chunks,dissect it and offer some non emotional problem solving and, and always keep in mind diplomacy. Always deal with them in a rational way.”
Lynn’s long-term plan for tackling your office bully is broken into the handy acronym C.A.L.M .
“C is for communication, which means not only ensuring you get to know how your boss likes to communicate- email, calls etc- and when- what time of day they are most receptive,” she explains, “it is also in how you communicate any issues you have. Be clear and constructie but also make sure to say ‘I feel’ when airing an issue. Nobody can criticise you for how you feel!”
“A is for anticipate; this means both knowing what problems may arise before they do, and knowing when is and isn’t a good time to talk to your boss,” she continues, “L is for levity- it works just like with a child, you know, if a kid is just acting out, and then you jam the system all of a sudden with something funny, then they're like, oh, okay, you just broke that tension barrier. And the same thing goes with the office. Clever, well-placed humour goes a long way in an office environment, especially when things become a little tense.”
Her final piece of advice to 'Manage Up'; “Be a problem solver for your boss. No manager wants a person to come in and bring problems to the table, because that's just going to amp up the level of frustration your boss already has…But I will say managing up is also about setting boundaries, because they are not a mind reader, and they will give you as much stuff as you will take. So the ability to say no to your boss is an excellent skill because learning to say no, and knowing how to say no, is so important. It is about clearly communicating and managing their expectations of you.”
Look after your mental health
Holly Roberts, counsellor at Relate, warns against letting this affect your self worth, as so many of us allow work to become our identity.
“Often when we are having a really bad time at work this affects us disproportionately because work has started to dominate our lives, especially in lockdown,” she explains, “One way to tackle this to is set clear boundaries, to talk to people- both at work and at home- about the situation so that you are not overwhelming yourself. It also means affixing rationality to your issues at work, never responding to them emotionally but stepping back and trying to see them from a distance, never letting them affect our view of our own self worth.”
The long term effects of a bad boss can, of course, be extremely detrimental to your mental health. As Sophie Benning found, it can linger long after you have left your job and Holly agrees: “With patients I have seen, they have mild symptoms of PTSD, because it is repeated trauma that's happening over and over again.”
Emma Mamo, head of Workplace Wellbeing at MIND says: “There are lots of things you can do to stay as mentally healthy as possible, including trying to establish a routine that includes regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet and trying to get a good night’s sleep. Self-care is really important in helping us stay physically and mentally well. But if you notice changes to your feelings, thoughts and behaviours that last longer than two weeks, keep returning or are having an impact on your daily life, it could be that you’re experiencing a mental health problem requiring treatment."
"Talk to someone you trust, such as a loved one or a health professional," she advises, "Most GP surgeries are still able to offer consultations via phone or online, but check with your practice to find out what they can do.”
Know when to go to HR
Whilst both Sophie and Frances felt they could not go to HR, there are of course instances in which HR must, and should, act. If you believe any of your bullying is borne out of any discriination or if you are experiencing sexual harassment, it is imperative you report it.
Emma Mamo is aware that people often don’t trust HR but says she hopes this will change and is striving to ensure it does.
“Staff wellbeing should not suffer as a result of stress and pressure in the workplace. Policies need to be put in place to protect staff from bullying and harassment. And, crucially, staff also need to know how they can access help and know they’ll be taken seriously if they make a complaint in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their roles,” she says, “It’s vitally important that all employers recognise and respond to any challenges their workplace can have on the wellbeing of their staff.”
This originally appeared on GLAMOUR UK | Marie-Claire Chappet