Returning To Work After Bullying: Traps For Players

We know from the research that long term severe bullying results in the target often having to leave the workplace. Often this is because of the mental health (or physical) impact of the behaviour they have been subjected to.

People who have been seriously bullied, and are now out of work, face a number of hurdles returning to the workforce. Poor mental health is often compounded by lack of confidence, isolation from family and friends, lack of daily routine and ruminating about their bullying experiences. Family and friends while usually helpful, can actually hinder someone’s motivation to return to the workforce by becoming too protective and getting in the way of their loved one facing their demons, getting through the anxious period that often accompanies getting back to work. Union and industrial advocates can sometimes also unwittingly keep people in a sick role by being too protective and not allowing the client to ‘get back on the horse’ so to speak. While it may not be appropriate for a bullied target to return to the same place they were bullied, the best place for them is often back in the workforce at another job where they are earning money, socialising, developing a healthy routine and can re-build their confidence.

Feedback from the focus groups I conducted suggested that unemployment due to bullying was something many participants tried to hide from friends, and this served to further isolate them from friends and extended family. Low income and a reliance on unemployment benefits also meant that many unemployed participants could not afford to socialise, or participate in previously enjoyable activities that required regular income. Gym memberships may be scrapped, socialising diminished, and social withdrawal become a financial necessity. Other participants reported that their age was a barrier to future employment. They felt they were either too old to employ, or younger participants who had left their first job due to bullying, were unable to obtain a reference to assist with future employment. The stress of being on WorkCover also contributed to and added to anxiety and depression.

Most of the participants in our study were, or had been seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist as a result of the mental health concerns they faced as a result of the bullying they had been exposed to. However, unless people were involved in the WorkCover system, therapy often occurred in a vacuum or a silo, and didn’t address returning to work, or how to better manage these symptoms of anxiety in the workplace. It was uncommon for some therapists to utilise ‘exposure’ type therapies, and assist participants back into the workplace through systematic exposure to volunteering or job related activities. This is despite exposure therapies in combination with cognitive behaviour therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment therapies being best practice for both anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress disorders.

The aim of the group return to work program that I am developing is not to replace participants’ psychological therapy, but to bridge the gap between individual psychotherapy and return to work. Participants will be encouraged to continue consulting their therapist and to discuss, practice and expand on the RTW sessions with their therapist. The 8 week RTW program will be facilitated by both a psychologist and a return to work specialist, who will work with the participants after the formal 8 week RTW program is completed. Participants are encouraged to manage their symptoms while thinking about, and then slowly returning to the workplace. They will be encouraged thought an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy model to pursue their values and accept the things they are unable to change. The therapeutic and rehabilitative components of the RTW program are designed to complement each other, as it is recognised that returning to the workforce following severe bullying requires a multi-level approach, with support prior to, during and after return to work. So stay tuned, and I will let you know where the program is up to.

As we develop the program (Oh I wish I had more time!!!) I will keep you in the loop.