Coping With Bullying, Anxiety and Depression at Work
Bullying may be something most of us associate with our school days. But adult bullying is common too, especially in the workplace. Indeed numerous surveys have come to the conclusion that more of us than we may think have experienced bullying at work:
In 2018, a survey of TUC safety representatives found bullying was the second biggest workplace issue after stress (i).
Another TUC survey suggests almost a third of people in the UK have been bullied at work, with more women (34 per cent) having experienced workplace bullying than men (23 per cent) (ii).
The same survey shows almost half of those who’ve been bullied find it has a negative effect on their mental health, with around one in five people having taken time off work because of being bullied.
Stress and ill health can become part of the daily life of those being bullied, says the TUC (iii). But mental health problems that can be caused by being bullied include not just stress, but depression and anxiety too, not to mention loss of self-confidence and low morale. Physical symptoms can also include headaches, nausea, sleep difficulties, skin rashes, high blood pressure and irritable bowel syndrome.
What is workplace bullying?
If you feel you’re being singled out for unfair treatment at work – either by a manager or one or more of your co-workers – there’s a good chance you’re being bullied. The Law Society says bullying may be characterised as:
Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. (iv)
As a blanket definition this can mean many different things, and some types of bullying are hard to describe or even so subtle that they’re not that obvious. You can also be bullied by one individual person or by a group of people. Bullying isn’t just something you experience face to face either – it can happen over the phone, by email, by text and on social media websites (this is usually called cyber bullying).
Where bullying in the workplace is concerned you could be affected in a number of different ways. Some of the types of bullying include:
Unfair treatment, exclusion or victimisation.
Making fun of someone, such as picking on them or ridiculing them in front of colleagues or clients.
Physically or verbally abusing someone – this can include shouting, teasing, playing practical jokes and taking part in unnecessary or humiliating banter.
Spreading malicious rumours or speaking in an insulting manner.
Knowingly blaming someone for work-related mistakes or problems they didn’t cause.
Ignoring or demeaning someone’s views, values or opinions.
Misusing power or position – for example, supervising someone in an overbearing manner.
Making unwelcome sexual advances towards someone such as touching, standing too close, showing them offensive materials or making decisions on the basis of sexual advances being accepted or rejected.
Deliberately undermining someone by overloading them with unrealistic work expectations and criticising them constantly.
Taking away someone’s work responsibilities for no reason.
Undermining a worker’s job security and threatening them with the sack without good reason.
Preventing someone from progressing in their career by intentionally blocking their promotion or denying them training opportunities.
Not allowing someone to take holidays or preventing them taking time off for important occasions.
Regularly excluding someone from team activities or meetings.
What can you do?
Whatever type of bullying you may be experiencing, and however often it happens, it’s important to remember that it is never acceptable, neither in nor out of work. But if it does happen to you, here are steps you could take that may make life easier and even help ease any symptoms of anxiety or depression you may be experiencing:
Talk about it
It’s not a good idea to keep a problem such as bullying to yourself, even if you find it difficult to talk about. Try speaking to someone who may be able to help, such as someone in your human resources department, your union representative or a health and safety officer. Find out what your rights are in respect to workplace bullying and whether or not your employer has an anti-bullying or anti-harassment policy – once you know more about where you stand, you can decide what to do next.
Also try talking to your work colleagues about what's been happening to you. You may find you're not the only person who's being bullied. At the very least, talking to others about what's happening could help make you feel less isolated.
If you’d prefer to chat online anonymously about your situation, the charity Family Lives has an online forum, which includes a discussion of workplace bullying.
Tackle your bully
If you feel you can cope with talking to the person who’s been bullying you, try telling them how their behaviour has affected you. It may be a good idea to write down everything you want to say first, as it could help you feel more calm when you confront them. You may even be surprised to find out that your bully is unaware of how much their behaviour has been upsetting you.
The direct approach isn’t always possible, of course, as you may have good reasons to want to avoid being on your own with your bully. If that’s the case, you could always think about asking someone you trust to talk to them on your behalf.
Keep a record
Make a note of all the bullying incidents that happen to you, including when they happen and who is involved. If you decide to take things further by starting a formal complaints procedure with your company, for instance, you’ll need a record of these things.
File a formal complaint
If you can’t resolve things on your own making a formal complaint may be the only way forward. Find out if your employer has a complaints procedure in place, which should tell you who exactly you should make the complaint to and how it will be dealt with.
See your GP
If you’re being bullied at work your health may be suffering. If this is the case, don’t ignore any health problems, whether physical or psychological. Talk to your GP about them.
For more information on bullying and harassment at work, including how to make a formal complaint and what your legal rights are, you can visit one of these websites:
Equality and Human Rights Commission
Ways to protect yourself
The first step towards looking after yourself when you’re experiencing an upsetting problem such as bullying is to take good care of your physical and emotional wellbeing. And that means having as healthy a lifestyle as possible.
For people who have demanding jobs or who work unsociable hours, it’s not always easy to find the time – or the energy – for exercise. But staying physically active is important for your physical and mental wellbeing. Any type of physical activity can also be an effective way of calming your brain, relieving a low mood and reducing your stress levels.
UK experts recommend being active daily and doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity such as cycling or brisk walking each week to stay healthy. For instance, this could be split up into five daily 30-minute activity sessions (or do more, shorter bursts of exercise if that suits you better).
Try to make sure you take all your breaks at work – including lunch breaks – and to do something active in each break, even if you just walk about and stretch your legs for a few minutes. Getting out of the office can give your mood a boost too, especially if you’re having problems with someone you work with.
Eat a healthy diet
When you feel stressed or anxious or your mood is low, it can be tempting to try and fill up on unhealthy snacks or drink endless cups of coffee when you’re working. But this isn’t going to make you feel any less stressed, anxious or depressed in the long run. Eating as healthily as possible, on the other hand, can help you cope better because you’ll have more energy and a more balanced mood.
There’s lots you can do to follow a healthy balanced diet, but in general make sure you have at least five portions of fruit and veg every day; drink plenty of water; try limiting your caffeine intake; and to stick to the current recommended alcohol intake guidelines (maximum 14 units of alcohol a week).
Get plenty of sleep
Getting the right amount of sleep your mind and your body need could help you cope when you’re under pressure. Having a good night’s sleep doesn’t just make you feel rested and refreshed, it can also boost your energy, your mood and help you concentrate and focus better. If you’re not sleeping as well as you should, try reading our guide to sleep and insomnia.
A popular wellbeing technique, mindfulness may help reduce your stress levels at work as well as help reduce the symptoms of anxiety and low mood. There are lots of ways you can practise being more mindful – at work, for instance, try to avoid multitasking (trying to do more than one thing at the same time or constantly switching from one task to another). Instead concentrate on one thing at a time, only moving on to the next thing when you’ve completed the task you’re currently working on.
Find out more about mindfulness at bemindful.co.uk
Take a day off
If you’re owed any holidays, why not take some time off? Time away from the workplace could help reduce your stress levels and help you feel calmer, even if only temporarily.
There are lots of other self-help steps you can take to tackle stress, low mood and anxiety, whatever the cause:
• Read our guide to depression signs and symptoms.
• Find out how to cope with anxiety.
• Learn ways to relieve stress.
Natural support for your mental health
Experiencing any kind of problem at work can be physically and mentally draining. So it’s important to try to relax as much as possible and to get the right amount of sleep. Here are some nutritional supplements that may help you feel calmer, more rested and more energised:
A herb used traditionally in the Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine, ashwagandha is often used by natural health practitioners to combat tiredness and fatigue. It is classified as an adaptogen, which means it may help the body to manage stress too. Indeed, a small-scale study found that, when given to people with a history of chronic stress, ashwagandha leads to significant stress reduction, including a reduction in levels of the stress hormone cortisol (v).
An earlier study has also found that, after taking ashwagandha, 88 per cent of participants said they felt less anxious (though 50 per cent of those taking a placebo said they felt less anxious too) (vi).
This herb has a history of traditional use for the temporary relief of sleep disturbances as well as mild anxiety. In fact it’s thought to have been recommended for insomnia as far back as the second century AD. The scientific evidence for valerian is mixed, however. This is arguably because experts aren’t sure which ingredients in valerian are the most important, making testing problematic. Several studies, however, found it may affect the body’s production of a naturally occurring amino acid called GABA, which is thought to be related to anxiety (vii). A review of 16 studies, on the other hand, concludes that valerian may improve sleep quality without producing any side effects (viii).
This non-protein amino acid is found almost exclusively in green, black, oolong and pekoe tea, and is thought to stimulate the production of calming alpha brain waves. And while it will not make you feel drowsy, taking a theanine supplement could help make you feel more relaxed, including before bedtime (ix).
Tea made from the herb lemon balm is also often used to help aid relaxation. A couple of small-scale studies have found it may help to reduce anxiety levels too (x), and there’s evidence that combining lemon balm with valerian could help if your anxiety is contributing to increased stress levels (xi). Adding lemon balm extract to food has also been found to improve mood (xii).
The amino acid 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is often used by natural practitioners as a remedy for depression and low mood, with studies suggesting it may be as effective as antidepressants (xiii). It may also help if you’re finding it difficult to sleep properly (xiv). 5-HTP has been studied to find out if it could help people with anxiety disorders, with findings suggesting it may well be effective (though not quite as effective as an antidepressant called clomipramine) (xv).
This herb has been used traditionally throughout Europe and is a popular remedy for stress. Indeed there’s some evidence to suggest rhodiola supplements perform significantly better than a placebo (dummy pill) in reducing anxiety and stress and boosting overall mood (xvi). It may also be useful for anxiety by improving mental alertness, especially for people who’ve been having sleep problems (xvii).
St John’s wort
This herb is often used as a remedy for the relief of slightly low mood and mild anxiety, based on traditional use only. Studies have also found it’s more effective at treating mild to moderate depression than placebo (xviii), and others suggest it’s at least as effective as some popular prescription antidepressants (xix). An updated systematic review of herbal medicines also suggests there’s high-quality evidence for the use of St John’s wort for major depressive disorder (xx).
However, St John’s wort may interact with some other medicines, so consult your GP before taking it if you’re on any kind of medication.
Lavender aromatherapy oil
Aromatherapy oils such as lavender have a long tradition of helping people to feel more relaxed and also helping them to sleep. There is also some evidence that lavender oil may be an effective natural way to treat the signs of anxiety (xxi). Try heating some in an essential oil diffuser if you’re feeling stressed, or have a warm bath with a drop or two of lavender oil before bedtime to help you sleep more peacefully.
Workplace bullying is never acceptable, but it happens to more people than we may think. This guide should give you some ideas about what you can do to tackle it, as well as ways to help you feel more positive and less stressed. For more information on other health conditions that can make you feel less like your usual self, visit our health library.
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Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.