In 2014, Labour MP Gerald Kaufman stood up in parliament to defend a “bullied and bludgeoned” pharmacist. He told the tale of an employee who had been on the end of “bogus allegations” while working at Asda.
He condemned the “tyrannical” treatment that led to the pharmacist’s suspension and eventual dismissal. His story ended with a clear call to action: that parliament investigate the “immoral thugs” responsible.
Asda was unable to comment at the time as the case was ongoing. Regardless of the employer’s take on the situation, though, the MP’s protest highlighted an important issue. It may have been an unusually high-profile case – Mr Kaufman’s speech resulted in the complaint being passed to the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills – but it was certainly not an isolated incident. In fact, preliminary results from the C+D Salary Survey 2016 suggest 12% of pharmacy employees have experienced workplace bullying in the past year.
Left unchecked, bullying can result in the target’s rapid deterioration of mental health and work performance. So what constitutes bullying and what can you do if you’re on the end of it?
If you’re the subject of bullying, you’re likely to know about it – but a definition can be useful to pinpoint incidents of foul play. Workplace advisory organisation Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) describes bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour” and “an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”.
In a pharmacy environment, bullying often takes the form of setting unrealistic targets. Charity Pharmacist Support says it receives calls from pharmacists who feel completely overwhelmed by an ever-increasing workload, unachievable targets and impossible deadlines. In some instances, pharmacists are named and shamed in front of colleagues if targets are not met.
Attempts to raise the issues with management can result in an invitation to a performance review meeting, followed by disciplinary proceedings and – in the worst case scenario – dismissal. “We have had reports of situations where, if a reason cannot be found for dismissal, attempts may be made to wear down the pharmacist – alienating and bullying them until they just give up and leave anyway,” says Pharmacist Support chief executive Diane Leicester-Hallam.
What motivates a bully? In the case of target pressure, Ms Leicester-Hallam says this may stem from the bully’s own feelings of stress. “Unachievable targets are problematic; often the manager or area manager is just as likely to have their own overload [due to] targets,” she says.
In such a high-pressure situation, many managers may have times when stress gets the better of them. But what sets a bully apart from the rest is that their behaviour is systematic and targeted towards certain individuals.
Targets of bullying may feel they have been selected for a negative reason – for example, because their performance is below par. In fact, the opposite can be true, says Pharmacist Support. The charity explains how an inferiority complex can cause a bully to lash out. The bully may worry that a colleague’s work and abilities overshadow their own, or that they are better liked by the team.
Personality traits can also come into play. A person who is perceived as ethical, for example, may become a target if a bully wants to discourage whistleblowing. And Pharmacist Support says bullies tend to prey on vulnerability. People who are introverted, anxious or submissive are more likely to become targets, it explains, because the bully can use these qualities to their advantage.
In some cases, the target is simply vulnerable because of their position. This is the case for pre-registration trainees, for instance, who rely on their tutor to qualify as a pharmacist. Pharmacist Support has heard first hand from trainees who have been treated badly. “They are asked to carry out inappropriate work, spoken to inappropriately or humiliated, sometimes in front of others, or obliged to work very long hours,” says Ms Leicester-Hallam.
Another factor is prejudice - people can be targeted because of their gender, age, sexual preference, race or religion.
Bullying may stem from a variety of factors but, regardless of its cause, the consequences are similar. Ms Leicester-Hallam testifies that bullying behaviour can have a “devastating” impact on the target’s physical and mental wellbeing. “It can lead to loss of self-confidence and self-esteem and feelings of anxiety, humiliation, frustration and anger,” she says.
Soon, the whole workplace environment can become unbearable. “Bullying can be very isolating, interfering with other relationships at work or stopping you from doing things you would normally do, such as going out for drinks with colleagues after work,” she says.
It is little wonder, then, that this pressure usually spills over into life outside work. Targets can experience sleep or eating disorders, depression, alcohol or drug abuse and even suicidal thoughts. This often puts pressure on personal relationships, which can break down if the problem is not addressed.
Given all of the above, it is easy to feel hopeless. As the target, you may feel you are bearing all the consequences of the bullying behaviour, while the perpetrator gets away scot-free.
But you can take action. Pharmacist Support recommends seeking help as soon as possible rather than bottling things up. A good starting point is to keep a diary of bullying incidents – noting down the time, date and what happened. Once you’ve compiled your evidence, it’s time to find someone who can help.
In the first instance, Pharmacist Support recommends seeking advice from within the company – whether a manager, owner or colleague. If you’re working for a large business, there should be an anti-bullying policy in place and HR is obliged to listen to your concerns. Your company may even offer independent sources of help. Well, for example, has an external assistance programme for its 7,000 employees, with a helpline that offers support and advice.
But not all companies will provide comprehensive support. Christine Sprigg, a lecturer in occupational psychology from the
Institute of Work Psychology at the Sheffield University Management School, points out that bullying can be linked to “weak leadership”, a “lack of clear policy” or cultures in which the behaviour is “accepted or even encouraged”.
In these cases, it may be best to seek help externally. Pharmacist Support can put pharmacists in touch with a specialist employment adviser, who will be able to talk them through their rights and the options available to them, and it also advocates contacting a union or the Citizens Advice Bureau. In terms of emotional support, the charity also offers an e-therapy package or confidential helpline (see Useful numbers, right) staffed by volunteer pharmacists and a counsellor.
It is important to remember that speaking out can result in concrete action. If an allegation of bullying is well-evidenced and substantiated, the bully can face disciplinary proceedings, lose their job and – in the most extreme cases – be the subject of civil court action.
So don’t suffer in silence. Unlike the Asda pharmacist, your case may never be raised in parliament. But you don’t need a high-profile case to secure results. Taking measured, considered action can enable you to gain justice and – crucially – restore your working life.
5 tips on dealing with bullying
1. Nip it in the bud
Seek help as soon as possible, rather than bottling it up. As Pharmacist Support says, this “merely stores up problems for the future”.
2. Keep a diary
Make a note of bullying incidents to help clarify what you are experiencing, and to identify patterns and triggers. This information will be vital as evidence.
3. Confide in someone
Talk to someone who you trust, such as a work colleague or union representative. They can advise you on potential routes of action.
4. Be informed
Look at your workplace policy on bullying – what does it define as unacceptable behaviour and what action can be taken?
5. Don’t give up
Remember that well-evidenced claims of bullying can result in the bully being subject to disciplinary proceedings, losing their jobs or facing civil court action.
Have you ever been bullied in the workplace?
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