The drip - drip - drip despair that slowly destroys lives

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Mark Whitehead studies the psychology that channels the stress of the job into a network of victims and oppressors, and talks to teachers whose senior colleagues turn tormentors

The school bully is a well-known menace. But adults, too, can be victims of bullying by colleagues. Workplace bullying, many now recognise, is an increasingly important management issue. And teachers are among those most at risk.

The problem in the profession is believed by some to be so serious that last year a support organisation, Redress, was set up to provide help and advice for victims. So far it has dealt with about 350 cases.

The toll on an individual can be shocking. Christina Jones, who runs a telephone helpline for Imperative, another advice and counselling organisation set up two years ago for people who feel they are being persecuted by workplace bullies, says callers are usually highly emotional and often in tears. For many, the helpline is a last resort when there is nowhere else to turn. Victims are often ashamed to admit they cannot stand up to their tormentor and unable to ask for help from colleagues or managers. Often even their partners cannot help.

Two recent callers Christina Jones has dealt with, one a long-serving and successful teacher, were contemplating suicide. "They have reached the stage where they dread the shrill of the Monday morning alarm," says Ms Jones, "because they know they have to face the person who is slowly destroying them."

Bullying among adults usually involves a kind of psychological warfare by someone in a position of authority against a subordinate, involving such tactics as constant criticism, public humiliation, undermining of the victim's confidence and setting unreasonable performance targets.

Bullies also resort to shouting at the victim in front of colleagues or pupils, arbitrary removal of responsibilities, threats, intimidating use of discipline or isolation.

The effects of this kind of treatment can lead to panic attacks, sleeplessness, long-term sickness, broken relationships, loss of confidence and nervous breakdown.

"It's a pretty desperate situation," says Christina Jones. "You're fighting for your survival, constantly looking over your shoulder. It's a drip-drip-drip effect which creates feelings of intense worthlessness."

Research is revealing that workplace bullying is surprisingly commonplace. Charlotte Rayner at Staffordshire University questioned more than 1,000 employees from firms in the area doing part-time courses at the university, most aged 25-35. More than half - 53 per cent - had been bullied at some point in their career. More than a quarter of those had changed jobs because of it.

Bullying in the workplace is not just a problem for the victim. According to a study by Professor Cary Cooper at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, it costs Britain an estimated Pounds 4 billion a year in lost working time and legal fees. Employers are realising that it hits them where it most hurts and that they must act. Teachers, according to counsellors who run helplines and advice agencies, are one ofthe worst-affected occupational groups. A survey last year by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers found 72 per cent of those answering had suffered or had seen colleagues being bullied.

The NASUWT claimed at its recent annual conference that 10,000 teachers were victims of bullying by colleagues and that it was becoming the biggest cause of stress-related illness in the profession. A survey by the union indicates that most bullies are headteachers in their forties, although deputies and department heads were also among the main offenders.

It is a growing problem in schools, says the union, linked to increasing pressure throughout the economy and massive increases in the management responsibilities handed over to schools under the Government's education reforms over the past few years. Of those answering the survey 87 per centsaid management pressure had increased in recent years.

Most blamed the new inspection system run by the Office for Standards in Education and the increase both in competition between schools and in responsibilities under local management. The relative independence of schools - especially grant-maintained schools - as a result of Government reforms appears to be a factor.

NASUWT, which defines bullying as "the unjust exercise of power of one individual over another by the use of means intended to humiliate, frighten, denigrate or injure", says that in a typical bullying situation, school managers take their stress out on their subordinates who in turn take it out on those working under them. The union calls this "cascade bullying".

Les Roberts, who carried out the NASUWT survey, says there are many similarities between bullying among children and its adult equivalent. Victims are often too frightened to report it and feel they ought to be able to stand up to it. Persistent attacks, often small things which on their own might appear inconsequential, can "grind them down to the point where they can't defend themselves".

The biggest group of victims identified in the union's survey was women teachers in their mid-forties, with primary school deputy heads especially well represented. Often, perhaps surprisingly, the most experienced and strongest personalities suffered most. Many victims were not the weak and vulnerable kind of person one might imagine to be most at risk.

Tim Field of the Campaign Against Bullying at Work, who has studied the psychology behind bullying, says the weak and vulnerable often have low self-confidence and have learned to "bend and sway" under pressure. The bully is more likely to target a colleague who is good at his or her job, but who is not very assertive and needs to feel valued.

The typical bully, on the other hand, is someone who has been put in a position of power and responsibility but lacks confidence in carrying out the role.

They have never learned the effect of their actions on others and see everything in terms of themselves, says Mr Field, who had to leave his former career in industry after suffering the pressures of bullying in the workplace.

"Many people in positions of power don't have the ability to fulfil the duties and responsibilities they have been given," he says. "They just don't know how to handle people, and they tend to project their own failings on to others. "

This may help to explain why workplace bullying appears to be a particular problem among teachers: the additional responsibilities placed on schools in the past decade have not been matched with relevant management training for heads and department heads.

But workplace bullying, many might argue, is just a new name for what happens when strong managers in an increasingly competitive world attempt to improve the performance of their staff. The so-called victim may simply not be up to the job, and may perceive perfectly fair management behaviour as victimisation.

"It can be very difficult sometimes to distinguish between bullying and a head simply trying to chivvy someone along," one senior education official said. In its own report, the NASUWT says some members are sceptical of the whole idea, and quotes one as saying: "Bullying has become a Nineties buzzword used quite erroneously to describe any form of pressure put on a teacher by a line manager."

But Elaine Bennett, an associate adviser with the Industrial Society, says: "Coming down heavily on someone for underperformance can be a good thing. There are managers with strong personalities but people often thrive in that culture because it creates motivation and success for the organisation.

"By comparison, bullying is insidious and insistent. When you get a manager who targets an individual, blocking their every move and being vindictive, it's a waste of time and money for the organisation and certainly does not help the bully or the victim."

Strategies for dealing with workplace bullying are in their early stages. But one anti-bullying policy introduced by Wiltshire County Council is held up as good practice by Redress. The LEA has made bullying a disciplinary offence and defines it as "the misuse of power or position persistently to criticise and condemn, to humiliate and undermine an individual's skills and ability such that he becomes fearful, his confidence crumbles and he loses belief in himself".

The four-page policy, brought in as part of the council's equal opportunities strategy, points out that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and employment protection legislation may provide legal avenues for victims of bullying.

It sets out a procedure for complaining about victimisation, setting any investigation of allegations firmly within a school's disciplinary procedure, and offers complainants the chance to go directly to a county council personnel officer. The policy has already led to two disciplinary cases, the outcomes of which have not been made public.

The late Andrea Adams presented a range of strategies for dealing with the problem in her groundbreaking book Bullying at Work, published in 1992, and Redress has also produced a five-stage action plan.

It recommends first approaching the person causing concern and informing them of the problem. A record of all incidents should be kept, it says, and union officials should be informed. If the member of staff faces dismissal, resort to an industrial tribunal should be considered.

There have been a handful of successful claims of unfair dismissal before industrial tribunals involving allegations of bullying, and several more hearings are in the offing.

A breakthrough came recently when two teachers forced to take sick leave after allegedly being bullied by headteachers had their cases recognised by the Department of Social Security as industrial injury incidents.

But the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union, which has taken a lead on this issue, believes that further legislation, of the kind operating in some European countries, may be needed. The union's lawyers are currently drafting a bill to outlaw "oppressive victimisation" in the workplace.

"Legislation alone is not the way to deal with problems with human behaviour, " says MSF official Chris Ball. "Social relationships are about people getting on together. But it could encourage them to sit down and talk about this issue, to try and raise awareness of bullying and state very clearly that it is not acceptable. It could mean supporting people and listening to them rather than dismissing their claims about the way they have been treated."

Les Roberts of NASUWT says that the most important thing is to create a working environment in which staff are involved in management decision-making and work as a team. The typical bully-friendly school, he says, is one where there is a very rigid hierarchy with many levels of management (people at the top remote from those at the bottom) and in which management decisions are taken by a very small group and dictated to the rest. Schools should adopt a "participative management style", under which bullying is less likely to thrive.

Jenni Watson of Redress advises anyone who faces bullying at work to try to take stock of the situation and regain enough confidence to tackle the bully. The first step is to talk to colleagues about it, to find out if they are also suffering and gain their support. Contacting former employers and colleagues can also do wonders in restoring self-confidence, as can looking over old thank-you letters from parents or cards from pupils.

"It's a question of empowering people to fight their own battles," says Ms Watson. "To be able to assert yourself you have to establish a sense of your own worth. It's always possible to do something. If you're determined enough you can beat the bully."


Susan was a very successful graduate teacher with a masters degree when she was appointed to her first deputy head's post. But she soon realised her management philosophy was very different to that of her new headteacher.

"She told me early on that the only way to succeed was if you were hated. She said you had to instil fear in people.

"She started picking on me about six months after I arrived. I got on very well with the staff and pupils and had a lot of praise from the parents and I think she felt threatened. "She kept adding to my job description. When the other deputy head left she gave me all her responsibilities so that doubled my workload. Then she made me office manager, but the next day she called me in and said she was disappointed with my performance.

"She would have towering rages. One day she came to my room and stood in the doorway screaming, telling me I wasn't supposed to speak to the office staff.

"If you were at a meeting with her she would get up while you were speaking and walk around humming to herself and opening and shutting drawers, or she would suddenly turn her back on you.

"She would send endless memos saying I hadn't done this or that. She would say the governors weren't happy with me and had complained about my work. But I couldn't take it up with the governors because they had been told not to speak to the staff.

"I felt very intimidated. I had always been ahead of the game and was making rapid progress in my career, but I ended up feeling I couldn't do anything right."

Susan almost had a nervous breakdown but eventually left the school for another job, and she appears to have regained her self-confidence.

Nevertheless,while telling her story more than two years later, she suddenly broke down and cried. The wounds are very deep.

* A VICTIM'S TALE David went to his new school full of high hopes after five successful years in teaching. But within a week his head of department starting finding fault over a range of alleged shortcomings.

"She said I spent too much time trying to get the kids to do their homework. Then she would tell me I didn't spend enough time on it. The goalposts were constantly moving so I never really knew where I stood.

"She told me my standards were too high and it would demotivate the children. I tried to argue against it but she would repeat the same instruction over and over again until I was forced to give in."

Then the head of department started what David saw as a smear campaign against him, spreading rumours about his professional competence and personal life.

"You're in a situation where she is paid to do the job and you can't win. I just had to bite the bullet. I did exactly what I was told to do and stood my ground, but it was driving me crazy. Then she started on the personal stuff saying she was going to get me sacked and all sorts of things."

David went to the headteacher but with no success, and finally decided to go use the school's grievance procedure. He won his case - but nothing changed.

He took sick leave some months ago and stayed off, suffering from the effects of stress. "I just couldn't go back," he says. "I was exhausted. But I've no idea what I'm going to do now."

* A VICTIM'S TALE Malcolm had been a head of department at his comprehensive school for several successful years. The trouble began when he was elected as a teacher representative on the governing body.

The head, he says, ran the school in a dictatorial fashion and did not approve of Malcolm exercising his responsibility to speak on behalf of his colleagues.

"I represented the staff as best I could on all the usual issues like budgets, staffing and the curriculum, but there were all sorts of things we didn't see eye to eye on and the head didn't like some of what I was saying.

"One day the head announced a major change which would affect some of the staff so I went to them and agreed to write a letter to the governors on their behalf, and gave a copy to the head before the next meeting.

"The head called me in and just went absolutely berserk, ranting that the letter was undermining the head's authority and we had no right to write to the governors. I was totally taken aback by this reaction. Nobody had criticised the head."

Malcolm felt so intimidated he did not go to the meeting and eventually resigned from the governing body.

Over the next few weeks the head froze him out, refusing to acknowledge his presence apart from writing aggressive memos. Eventually a representative of Malcolm's union succeeded in setting up a meeting at which the head admitted Malcolm had done nothing wrong.

But the damage was done. "The head made me feel very rattled and afraid, and I started to feel quite negative about the school. You feel you're constantly looking over your shoulder.

"It's the little insignificant things that make you feel undervalued and threatened. Put them all together and you lose confidence."

All names in the case histories have been changed


* Redress: Jenni Watson(01405 764432); * Imperative: Christina Jones(01983 856379) or Jan Samuel (0181 885 1677); * Campaign Against Bullyingat Work: Tim Field (01235 834548) or Chris Ball, MSF(0171 378 7255); * Suggested reading: Bullying at Work by Andrea Adams (Virago Pounds 8.99).


Here is some of the advice from Redress, the National Union of Teachers and Wiltshire County Council * Discuss the problem with colleagues; you will probablyfind them sympathetic andothers may have had thesame experience; * Make it clear to the person who is bullying you that their behaviour is unwelcome and must be stopped; * Keep a careful record of all incidents of behaviour whichyou consider to be bullying; * Speak to former colleagues, headteachers or heads of department to reassureyourself that there is nothing wrong with your competence; * If the bullying behaviour continues, approach yourline manager or anothersenior manager; * If this fails, ask your authority's personnel department oryour union; * Managers handling a complaint should informally discuss itwith the offender; * It may be necessary tostart an investigation into the bullying which could lead to disciplinary action.

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