Workplace Bullying and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

A few weeks ago I (Beverly) read a LinkedIn article on workplace bullying and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  I saved the link that accompanied it and have just been reading.  It has flagged up a number of things for me:

  1. remembering my own experiences;
  2. the actual impact of workplace bullying;
  3. there is not a lot of research on the links between workplace bullying and PTSD, with the exception of some in the armed forces and also within emergency services and nursing;
  4. when my GP suggested I may have PTSD I was horrified, thought he was overreacting as that only happens to service personnel and those who have suffered ‘real’ trauma like rape, domestic violence, witnessing a crash, and so on.

Thinking of these things in the context of employment law, an individual leaving an organisation under a settlement agreement  cannot be asked to waiver their rights to personal injury, however, generally, a claim should be started within 3 years of leaving employment.  With some exceptions, as set by the Limitation Act 1980, after 3 years you become time-bound.

Is that timescale too short?

Workplace-Bullying-and-Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder-PTSD

I felt like a punchbag bouncing back!

My Story

I worked in an environment of coercive control and bullying.  I won’t go into the detail of what happened on a day to day basis, however, what I will say is there were threats to my future, gaslighting, pressure to act unethically (which I refused), witnessing the same behaviours toward others, and seeing a culture of ‘who will be next?’ growing around me.  At one point the perpetrator actually said to me:

I know I can throw anything at you, you’re resilient and will always bounce back!

On reflection an admission?

By the time I’d completely broken down, I’d lost all confidence, sense of self and identity, together with the ability to think straight, second guessing my decisions.  Such was the control of the perpetrator that when I did resign from the role, they rejected it:

How will you get another job in a recession, you’re just depressed!

was the response.

Eventually I did crash and burn.  My main issues were during the night.  I suffered shakes and tremors.  My body would involuntarily jump to the bottom of the bed.  It’s hard to imagine how a tremor can be forceful enough to throw you from one end of the bed to the other.  The nightmares were terrible and constant.

When I did go out I suffered hypervigilance.  It took all my efforts to do one thing in the house.  Cleaning a cupboard was an achievement.  I cried, my brain was mush.  We hear about brain fog and mummy brain, but this was intense and painful – a walking zombie!  Like lots of people with depression I just wanted to stay in bed, even though this was a place of trauma.

On a positive note that was many years ago and I work, live a fulfilled life, have wonderful people in my life, and I know myself better than I ever did.  If anything can come out of what I experienced, is a journey to self awareness and confidence.  I choose my friends, colleagues and clients wisely.  I have a personal rule 3 strikes and you’re out.

Does workplace bullying lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?Workplace-Bullying-and-Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder-PTSD

I think all those years ago that GP was right.  Probably ahead of his time.  Whilst there are not a lot of studies in this area, those available do indicate probability of links.  An article in The Journal of Nursing Management printed research findings.

Workplace bullying appears to be predictive of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptomology, a serious mental health outcome.

Further published research, Workplace Bullying and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptomology: The Influence of Role Conflict and the Moderating Effects of Neuroticism and Managerial Competencies
Miren Chenevert, Michela Vignoli, Paul M. Conway, and Cristian Balducci, Paul B. Tchounwou (Academic Editor), considers the presence of role ambiguity and bullying as a precursor to PTSD.

… this present study reveals that role conflict can also put employees at risk of exposure to bullying, which, in turn, leads to mental health consequences, particularly PTSD symptomology.

Workplace-Bullying-and-Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder-PTSDAgain, Does workplace bullying lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

I think from my experience to this present day, yes.  My experience was a long time ago.  Within weeks of leaving the organisation I became ill.  Initially I thought it was the anti-depressants I was taking.  I lost weight, had no energy, was dizzy to the point of feeling faint and losing the use of my legs, and my neck was swelling.  Blood tests identified an overactive thyroid, known to be associated with trauma.  I took medication for a number of months and eventually it reverted to normal.

To this day, many years on, I still have nightmares, not as frequently, but they are there.  I have a recurring dream that I’ve labelled:

the stress dream!  

After such trauma, you dedicate time to recovery, looking at what next, and rebuilding your life.  It’s not until you’re ‘fully functioning’ that you realise the lasting impact.  Sometimes that takes along time.  Everyone’s recovery is different and it’s difficult to determine at what point recovery is complete and it’s actually PTSD.  It’s only now, having been well, happy, building a successful business for a number of years yet experiencing nightmares and the recurring dream, that I reflect and conclude there has been a lasting effect.  There is nothing in my life that can cause this other than my history.  Whether it’s PTSD or not I’m not qualified to say.  Do I want to go down that route to diagnosis, no.  Whilst it’s disturbing and a constant reminder, I have strategies in place to manage my feelings when I wake.

In answer to the question I posed earlier,

is 3 years long enough to place a personal injury claim?  

Again, it’s complex and there is not enough research in this area.  What I would say is everyone is different.  There has to be some legal boundaries, but perhaps, five years would give people the opportunity to differentiate between recovery and lasting impact.  People need to be strong to address these issues and three years may be too short a period to address the issues for some.

How can you help yourself?

  • Pay attention to how you feel after interactions with certain co-workers or managers.  If you constantly feel anxious, stressed, or nervous around certain people, it could be a red flag.
  • Take note if you are being singled out for unfair criticism or treatment compared to your peers. For example, being micromanaged more closely or held to higher standards.  This may include expressed dissatisfaction with your performance without specific evidence or feedback you can’t relate or respond to.
  • Watch for signs of social isolation or exclusion. Are you off certain information circulars you previously were part of?  Are you no longer required at certain meetings, project groups, etc. without explanation.
  • Notice if communication and behaviour leaves you feeling humiliated, mocked, or belittled, especially in front of others. Demeaning language and public embarrassment are common bullying tactics.
  • Consider whether you are being set up to fail. Are you experiencing impossible deadlines, having key information withheld, or being given competing demands.
  • Take notes of any incidents of bullying behaviour, including dates, times, witnesses, and exactly what happened. A record can help support your case later.
  • Trust your instincts. If a co-worker relationship feels toxic or you dread interacting with them, don’t ignore it. Seek help.
  • Speaking up early and reporting bullying to your HR department or manager can help resolve the situation before it escalates further.
  • Reflect on your performance.  Is the challenge justified, just not executed well?  If that is the case then raise that you need meaningful and constructive challenge.
  • Are you struggling and feeling stuck and is that just not being managed well?  Open up and share with your manager that things have changed, it’s impacting on your performance, and their response to you is not constructive to finding a way through it.

You deserve a safe, respectful workplace.

If you need help and support with management and leadership development, employee wellbeing audits, or bullying awareness, contact us.