The Wound of Workplace Bullying:
Anticipatory and Complicated Grief
Linda Crockett, MSW, RSW SEP
“We are anticipating it, preparing for it and expecting it, and doing so elicits a vast range of extreme, conflicting emotions. We anticipate our lives will change after the loss.” (M. Hogan, 2012 )
Anticipatory Grief: “a grief reaction that occurs before an impending loss.” With cases of workplace bullying, the employee who is targeted will anticipate their loss of employment—a job they love and their livelihood, a job that included important connections and relationships, investments, health benefits, and their reputation.
Complicated Grief: will occur when a natural grief process becomes impaired. Examples: conflicts in relationships, legal issues, and additional stress with internal or external services. This creates further barriers to moving forward (e.g., issues with validation, sense of safety and fairness, or justice). With cases of workplace bullying, the employee suffers complicated grief dealing with for example: acts of retaliation, lack of support from peers or leaders, the investigation processes is triggering, and/or the investigations disappointing outcomes, overwhelming processes involved with short or long term disability (e.g. paper work, interviews, phone calls, denials, appeals, reviews), unions processes, and potential legal processes. It becomes even more complicated if there is any previous abuse, or traumas, and/or currently any other stressors e.g. physical or mental illness, or other losses, in their personal lives.
With workplace bullying, the employee who is targeted will experience “a variety of different bullying tactics for over three months to years.” These tactics may include ostracism, work and/or relationship sabotage, rumors, gossip, repeated reprimands due to false accusations made against them, lies, threats, and insults—all with some level of intent to embarrass, humiliate, diminish—or worse, remove from the workplace. This is anticipatory grief, and complicated grief—experienced over a long period of time.
With Workplace Bullying, there are many losses anticipated, and many complicated layers.
The loss of employment, safety, sense of self, and the loss of dignity.
There are many who do not have a choice but to remain in the workplace. They have families to feed, bills to pay, and perhaps an ill child or spouse in need of medical treatment. Yet, bullies and others will often say, “If you don’t like how it’s done here, leave!”
Life will also bring us other types of anticipated or unexpected challenges, such as an illness, or loss of a loved one by divorce or a passing. Many employees who are targeted report that the moment they became vulnerable due to a loss or illness, the bullying either began, or became more chronic.
As human beings, it is in our nature to consistently assess for safety in all of our environments. When it comes to workplace bullying, the abuse most often begins without warning, and continues for an undetermined period of time. However subtle it begins, employees who are targeted, and their bystanders, are intuitively aware that something has occurred. They are just uncertain of what it is. After all, employees are rarely trained to identify the early signs of this abuse. Most often, this is an insidious form of abuse which is initially difficult to comprehend. No one expects to be abused in their workplace. Most employers have policies in place (code of conduct, code of ethics, standards of practice), and employees want to believe that they are safe. Sadly, when safety guards are down, employees are often blindsided by their colleagues’ or leaders’ unpredictable rages, mood swings, or other bullying tactics. Over time, these repetitive blindsiding incidences, which continue to shock and confuse the employee, can result in symptoms of complex trauma.
It’s Just Like a Train Wreck! Whether you see the train wreck coming or not, it is a shocking, unpredictable, and disastrous tragedy. The initial shock of abuse in the workplace is similar. One minute you are feeling good about your day and the next, you are feeling shattered. After a series (weeks to months) of shocking incidences, it is simply our human nature to stay in a state of brace or hypervigilance. An employee who has been targeted by a bully will brace themselves in hope of being prepared and self-protective, rather than totally derailed by the effects of this unpredictable wreckage. This state of hypervigilance caused by fear and stress will place employees at risk of a serious physical and/or psychological illness. We must prevent these train wrecks.
Anticipatory grief is about a sense of impending loss. In the workplace when someone is being bullied, they become fearful of being physically, psychologically, emotionally, and financially harmed. The inability to predict or identify how or when they may be harmed next, and/or how deeply they may be harmed, creates more stress and anxiety, meaning psychological harm. The employee hopes this will be a temporary situation and worries that it may be permanent. They need support, help, and hope for a sense of justice. They lose sleep at night wondering if they will be believed. The mind of a human being experiencing abuse or trauma ruminates and searches for support, evidence, validation, safety, and understanding.
Loss of Identity Our work-life identity influences our personal and social identity. We measure our accomplishments, create more goals, and build life security, around our work. Work has a strong impact on our self-esteem, self-worth, and our sense of who we are. In a toxic workplace, targets of bullying will receive multiple messages (verbal and nonverbal) from a variety of people in the workplace. These messages may come from those who act out with bullying behaviors, bystanders, people in leadership positions, support services (e.g., human resources, union representatives, insurance agencies), and sometimes, even family and friends. For the abused employee, these mixed and ill-informed messages continually reinforce that they are not supposed to believe what they heard, what they saw, or what they feel.
In the past, society would give these same mixed and ill-informed messages to those who suffer from domestic violence or sexual abuse. With this in mind, it makes sense that an employee harmed by a workplace bully would often suffer in shame, alone, and in isolation. Is it any wonder that self-doubt becomes a plague for targets of bullying? There are layers of harm and many injustices. This can become a loss of identity, which further impacts and “complicates” the experience of grief.
Grief of a loved one: is a multifaceted response to a loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something that has died, to which a bond or affection was formed. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, and philosophical dimensions.
Grief of the job they love: This is a multifaceted response to a loss, particularly to the loss of job or career to which a bond or affection was formed. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, and philosophical dimensions.
Recovery will be similar to any grieving process. It will be unique for each person. It is helpful for all professionals, family members, and friends to be aware of the workplace bullying grief process. People need time, answers, solutions, and strategies for moving forward.
A Positive Exists
I hope that by reading through this article that you will realize the importance of increasing your knowledge, and then carefully select the language and actions you take, to help yourself and/or others who may be suffering from this abuse. I hope that this will bring some validation and relief as you gain insights and are able to identify the signs and symptoms employees who are targeted experience.
Support Targets of Workplace Bullying Abuse
- Validation is the most essential first response. You do not have to witness this to say, “I see that something difficult has happened to you. I am here to help.”
- Reinforce that no matter how complicated or hopeless a situation may be, there are options. There are answers. There is hope. Targets in distress may not see any options when the fog of overwhelm with stress and grief can blur perspectives. There is hope.
- Your knowledge, empathy, and clarity will be a life jacket for an employee who is feeling stuck on the tracks as a train wreck approaches.
- Prevent further harm by referring the employee to a qualified, experienced professional, trained to coach, educate, and also treat this unique type of injury. Professionals with this combination of qualifications is best for the injured employee.
- Review options. Contact WCB, Human Rights, and Occupational Health and Safety for guidance and direction. Information gathering is free, and you can remain anonymous until you are ready.
- Linda Crockett offers consultations, training, for staff, advocacy, education, coaching, counselling and clinical treatment for those injured, and for those who are identified for bullying others.
Linda Crockett MSW, RSW, SEP
Founder and CEO of Alberta Bullying Research, Resources & Recovery Centre Inc. (ABRC)
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© Crockett, Linda 2015