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Mental Health

When Is Enough Enough?

When verbal abuse becomes the new normal

Elizabeth*

From the "Workplace Bullying and Harassment" issue of Visions Journal, 2020, 15 (4), pp. 19-21

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Let’s face it: working in lower-income neighbourhoods in the downtown core of a large urban centre isn’t easy—for many reasons. Work teams are chronically understaffed and team members may deal with mental health issues and minimal resources and minimal funding. There may be frequent potentially conflict-charged interactions with clients, even with random visitors who walk through the workplace doors.

For several months, I worked in one of the single-room occupancy buildings in a large city. Often our tenants received visitors who were on the edge of a mental health crisis. In those situations, even asking a simple check-in question like “What’s your name and who are you visiting?” can quickly escalate, with the visitor becoming aggressive or verbally abusive out of the blue.

At a particularly low point, my co-worker and I jokingly tallied the “bitch-asshole-cunt-goof” score for the day. We kept track of how many insults we received—for whatever reason—on a daily basis. Sarcasm and humour are coping mechanisms; without them, I would probably have left my job in that environment a lot earlier.

Over time, daily exposure to that kind of violence meant that those sorts of unpredictable, aggressive interactions became “the small stuff”—the new normal for me. But this in itself is alarming, as it means I had come to expect abusive, aggressive behaviour at work. I had become numb to it! This should never be the norm!  

But at one point, the hostile interactions became too much for me to accept. Though I come from a less-than-ideal family situation (and, because of that, have a thicker-than-usual skin), the amount of verbal abuse, verbal aggression, name calling, threats and threatening gestures that I experienced at work were more than I have ever been exposed to—in my work life or my private life.  

I can brush off many things. For example, if someone who usually is well behaved calls me a “bitch,” then I can accept they are having a rough day. I’m not excusing their behaviour; I’m just explaining why it is easier for me to understand where that person is at in a particular moment. It doesn’t necessarily have something to do with me; the individual lacks a good coping mechanism for expressing frustration.

And then there is the wide range of offensive and personal-boundary-crossing comments that I would get on a daily basis simply because I am female. Some of the following examples—from both clients and visitors—have made me feel very uncomfortable and even, on some occasions, have scared me. Some seem almost harmless, but some are shocking. One was particularly traumatizing as it triggered old, traumatic memories:

  • “Do you want chocolate?” “No, thank you.” “Yeah, you are already sweet.”
  • “I’ll buy you flowers when I get my cheque.”
  • “You’ve got a beautiful smile.”
  • “You look like you do a lot of sports.” (said while staring at my butt)
  • “Marry me.”
  • “I’ll rape you in your sleep.”
  • “I’ll throw acid in your face, bitch.”
  • “I’ll bear spray you when you leave the building.”
  • “My cousins will take care of you.”

Over time, the frequent workplace harassment and bullying resulted in my lower motivation in my professional role, a significant drop in my productivity and a higher number of sick days. At times, I was highly concerned about my own safety and the safety of co-workers and clients.

Bullying and emotionally traumatizing events at work can affect the health of employees in the field of mental health and addictions and other health care professions. This can show up in a variety of different ways at work. Most often, employees have difficulties managing boundaries between work and personal life; they may not have taken any recent vacation, they may be increasingly absent from work, they may experience increased cynicism, sarcasm, anger at clients and isolation or disengagement from the team. In severe cases, the employee may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as intrusive thoughts and nightmares.

Other consequences can include an increase in the employee’s physical or psychological injuries, increased apathy and decreased pride in one’s work, a decrease in the employee’s ability or willingness to communicate and collaborate with colleagues and in the quality of services they provide, and an erosion of decision-making skills, motivation and performance. Ultimately, bullying and harassment at work can also lead to high rates of staff turnover.

What are my responsibilities as an employee?

If you are in a position where you experience bullying and harassment at work, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to document. Document, document and document your experiences as objectively as possible, even though that might be hard if you are in a situation where you feel scared and unsafe. After all, verbal threats are a form of violence.

Documenting experiences of bullying and harassment is important because our legal systems tend to emphasize the meaningfulness of written documentation. Essentially, if it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen. Shift reports and incident reports can be used in court and for other purposes (such as filing a claim with WorkSafeBC). Written reports also help co-workers and the organization assess risk and develop plans to address workplace violence and ensure the safety of staff and others.

The organization I worked for has in place a policy on discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace. According to this policy, the bullying and harassment that I’ve described above are examples of the type of incidents that need to be reported. While I documented most of my experiences of harassment, I did let some slip by, even though I knew I should have documented them. But honestly, I only have a certain amount of energy available and as we often said in my workplace, “Pick your battles.” I just didn’t have the energy to document everything. But whenever I did have the energy, I documented the incident.

The importance of self-care

One of the most important things we can do if we work in an environment where bullying and harassments are real risks of job is to take the time to really care for ourselves.

Ask yourself these questions: What happens when I’m at home and the work day sinks in? How do I de-compress? And how much from work do I actually carry home with me? Can I take care of myself well enough or do I perhaps need professional help to do so?

One thing is for sure: I can’t pour a cup for someone else when mine is empty. I can’t care for others properly if I haven’t first taken good care of myself. I have to step up my self-care game. I regularly check in with myself to see if my professional boundaries are still in place: Am I able to relate to the people I work with without being absorbed by their stories or what they tell me? Do I need to step back a little? Or get a bit closer?

Self-care has many faces. Something that works for me might not work for others. Over time, I’ve discovered that the best way for me to decompress is to exercise. I ride my bike to and from work every day. By the time I reach home at the end of the day, I am usually able to let go of any of the stresses I’ve encountered. I’ve also figured out that healthy eating helps me a lot, as does spending time outside in nature. Very often, I practise yoga directly after work and this also helps me to feel better. But if it has been a really rough day, these practices are not always enough.

Because it can be hard to put energy into good self-care if I am feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, I find it incredibly helpful to maintain a certain amount of self-care every day—even on the “good days.” That way, when “bad days” occur, I feel prepared and more balanced.

Practising good self-care is a learning process and it takes time to find out what works well and what doesn’t. Being curious and open to trying something new is also important. Try new activities with friends and family members, be playful and engage with a caring community. A sense of connection, safety and sharing is crucial for well-being.

When to seek professional help

Sometimes, it isn’t possible to always unburden ourselves with friends and family members. For example, most of my friends have chosen very different professions in different fields from me. When I talk with friends about my work stresses, they become increasingly concerned about my overall health and safety.

Over time, I realized that even the “shareable” parts of my job were very disturbing for them.

I didn’t want them to worry, so I stopped talking about work with them altogether. When they asked how was I doing, I would just say, “Fine.” But I knew that I wasn’t really fine. That’s when I thought it was time to start seeing a counsellor.

Counselling has turned out to be a great option for me, for a variety of reasons. While my counsellor may worry about me, she doesn’t show it, so I can share my experiences without being concerned that I might cause her to worry. She is non-judgemental and approaches our appointments from a neutral point of view. Even though it is her job to help me to fix myself, she doesn’t jump to conclusions or make unrealistic suggestions; I have confidence that I can discuss my concerns with her on a deep emotional level.

Exploring other employment options

Finally, I was fortunate that when I felt I had reached my personal limit and knew that I was no longer able to provide adequate, caring service in my role, a perfect position came up in another work environment.

Sometimes we may not notice immediately the negative impact of workplace bullying, harassment and violence. It’s important to reach out for help before the impact is too great. It’s also important to acknowledge when a particular employment situation has become too unhealthy—in other words, it’s important to know when it is time to leave one job and begin another.

About the author

*pseudonym

Elizabeth works in an urban setting in BC

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