September 30th, 2010

Workplace Bullying Strains Relationships


by Jessi Eden Brown, MS, LMHC, LPC

A recent online poll conducted on the Workplace Bullying Institute's website supported the common sense argument that workplace bullying strains the target's primary relationship at home.

Here are the results:

Since becoming the target of workplace bullying, my relationship with my partner (primary source of emotional support) has been:

Strained; we experience more conflict or stress as a result (62%)
• Strengthened; we are closer and more connected (17%)
• Dissolved; we are estranged/separated/divorced (14%)
• Unsure how the experience has affected my relationship (4%)
• Unaffected; the bullying has not had an impact (3%)

The vast majority (76%) of respondents reported negative consequences for their relationship, indicating it was marked by more conflict and stress or had been dissolved since being targeted by workplace bullying. Intuitively this makes sense, as the target, under significant pressure, relies on the support of his/her partner to understand and cope with adverse work conditions. The target uses his/her partner as a sounding board and filter for trying to comprehend the injustice of the situation. As expected, the increased and repetitive focus on work stress and anxiety strains the couple's relationship over time.

In my role as the professional coach for the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), I've spent countless hours on the phone with targets offering customized strategies for dealing with workplace bullying. The topic of relationship strain is a common one and I'd like to take this opportunity to share a few insights from my work with couples as a licensed mental health therapist and my training through WBI.

Knowing that the experience of being targeted by workplace bullying can cause tension in your relationship, here are a few suggestions and examples of how to help ward off the negative effects of this stress.

Set Healthy Relationship Goals

What is important to you as a couple? What parts of your relationship do you want to strengthen?

Put some thought into where you want to invest your time and energy. Think about how the two of you can work together to accomplish mutually agreed upon goals and counteract the stress you are experiencing. To increase your chance of success, make sure your goals are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely).

Case Study: I recently worked with a target and her husband to address the relationship challenges they faced. "Jan" and "Brian" reported spending more time fighting since Jan had been targeted by a workplace bully than they ever had in the 15 years prior. I asked them each (independently) to identify the top 10 values in their relationship (e.g., intimacy, fidelity, honesty, effective parenting, spontaneity, fun, etc.). The next week, I asked Brian and Jan to share their respective lists and select the top three values they could mutually agree upon. From the short-list, we established goals designed to increase the focus on what they acknowledged as being the most important elements of a healthy relationship. Jan and Brian committed to engaging in two activities per week to advance their goals and built time into their busy schedules to focus solely on their relationship. After three weeks, Brian reported a major shift in the home environment. He said he truly looked forward to coming home each night (something he once dreaded due to Jan's emotional state after work). Jan said she felt much more supported by Brian and that the "feeling of walking on eggshells" was gone. Together, they noted a significant decrease in marital conflict. Jan recently escaped her workplace bullying situation and Brian and Jan continue to set and achieve goals based on their relationship values.

Expand Your Social Support Network

Everyone needs a social support network, especially in times of stress. Your social support network is made up of friends, family, co-workers, and peers. It is important to build these connections, in part because reaching out to others reduces the strain placed on the relationship with your partner. Additionally, the variety of perspectives offered by the different members of your support network may help you find solutions and opportunities you otherwise might not have considered.

Growing and maintaining your support network is not difficult. For example, you can find new people by joining a social club, church, community education class, or seeking out volunteering opportunities. Maintain these relationships with casual, low-stress activities such as lunch dates with friends, coffee with co-workers, and phone calls and emails to family members and friends.

Though the time you spend with them may look different, you may want to consider expanding your network to include helping professionals (e.g., mental health therapist, physician, mentor, support group, spiritual leader, massage therapist, etc.).

Putting the effort into building a support network is a wise investment, not only in your mental well-being, but also in your physical health and longevity. A strong social support network offers a sense of belonging and security, as well as an increased sense of self-worth. Additionally, research shows that those who enjoy high levels of social support stay healthier and live longer!

Nourish Your Relationship

Similar to setting healthy relationship goals, this suggestion requires an intentional and concentrated focus on the couple. One way you can nourish your relationship is by planning and participating in activities you both enjoy. You do not have to invest a great deal of time and money, just some creative thought.

Try a date night, a picnic, a mini-getaway, take a class together, look through old photos/videos, commit to walking/exercising together, exchange love notes, prepare your favorite meal together, have a game night, read to one another...the possibilities are truly endless. Start by creating a list of your favorite activities and once a week (or more often) simply choose something from this list. It doesn't need to be a big production, it just needs to be time spent together, focused on something enjoyable. Note: Not every activity you do together will be a resounding success, but don't give up (and remember to try and laugh at the less-than-successful ones).

Educate Your Partner

The experience of being targeted can be a very lonely one. Many targets report a sense of isolation at work, especially when co-workers and supervisors witness the bullying behavior, but fail to take action or support the target. This sense of isolation may be further complicated by the fact that the target's friends and family do not understand the phenomenon of workplace bullying. The people around you might encourage you to "buck up," "quit that job," or to "just leave your problems at work." This advice, though well intentioned, is not helpful to a target merely searching for an empathic and compassionate response.

Education is the most powerful tool humans possess. Targets have valuable knowledge gained through personal experience and research conducted on websites and in books like ours. Share this information with your partner, but be careful not to overwhelm him/her. People learn best when they move at their own pace.

Point your partner to a small section of the website or a chapter in the Namies' book, The Bully at Work. Ask him/her to watch a video or listen to an audio clip. WBI offers many resources on our website, including an introductory brochure designed to share with friends and family. If your partner has never been exposed to workplace bullying, it is understandable why s/he may not be sensitive to your experience. Education is the key to empathy.

Release Your Partner

Our partners care very deeply for us. They see when we are hurting and want to make it better. Workplace bullying sometimes results in a very real and severe psychological injury--the kind of injury your partner cannot repair on his/her own. It can help a great deal to simply tell your partner that you genuinely appreciate his/her concern and desire to "fix" the situation; however, it is not something s/he can fix.

Release your partner from the shame, guilt, and anger associated with feeling helpless to correct the problem. You can let your partner know you want and need his/her support, but that this is a situation you must solve on your own. I can't tell you how many times clients have told me that this sincere, straightforward message saved their relationship.

Jessi Eden Brown, MS, LMHC, LPC is the professional coach for WBI and a licensed therapist in private practice. She provides targets with emotional support and customized strategies for effectively addressing workplace bullying.

Partners are invited to be involved in the coaching process in the event they (a) don't understand or believe what is happening, or (b) want to be able to provide better support to their bullied partner. Coaching fees are not affected by the decision to include a partner. Learn more about WBI's coaching services.

If you are the target of workplace bullying, find additional help here.

<-- Read the complete WBI Blog


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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 30th, 2010 at 2:09 pm and is filed under Tutorials About Bullying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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  • Kachina

    I discovered that the most helpful thing my partner can do is be himself, and be as unaffected by my pain as possible. As long as one of us is OK, we will make it!

    We chose each other for good reasons, and one of the most valuable characteristics I see in him is that he has excellent boundaries. I don’t want to infect or inflict him with my suffering, but I don’t want him to be apart from me either. He has the strength to stand by me without interfering with my process. He doesn’t feel responsible for causing it of curing it.

    He has provided me with valuable distractions when my mind is torturing me….like a drive in the country or a walk around the block, or a plate of apples and cheese. Sometimes the littlest things are the most productive!

    I have good friends who play yahtzee and word games with me, who make me surprising meals and send me things to laugh at. Because that is what they can do. I have to do the rest without them.

    WBI is invaluable to me because that is where I find people who are the right ones to go to with the bullying problem. It isn’t my whole life.

    • http://www.mgmt-in-a-nutshell.com Jay Jacobus

      What I needed to do was leave the job I was in and find another that was better.

      None of my support group suggested that option perhaps because they thought, “You rarely talk and when you do talk you don’t always make sense.”

      Some of my support group thought I needed to change my attitude and behavior. Nothing worked and I was eventually let go.

      One of my support people recently said, “Dad, you need to get a retirement job.” But what I really need is some meaningful work with a repectable income.

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