As teachers, we are used to dealing with bullying among children (unless in a school which claims to be free from this scourge). Bullying among adults, however, remains an intractable problem in many of our educational institutions. It’s ironic, but as a profession, we just don’t seem to be able to crack this particular issue.
While bullying is not technically illegal, workplace harassment can be unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. Clearly, though, the lines between harassment and bullying are blurred. Examples of workplace bullying and harassment outlined on the gov.uk website include spreading malicious rumours, unfair treatment, picking on or regularly undermining someone, denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities. This might happen face to face, or through any other form of communication.
Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary, NEU, sees that workplace bullying of education professionals is in most cases symptomatic of a much larger problem. She explained, “It is often a by-product of excessive workload and working hours, cuts to school and college funding and the constant demand for data to feed the excessive assessment regimes to which both students and teachers are being subjected. A consequence of this regime is that any members who refuse to be micro-managed, or who refuse to spend their weekends engaging in excessive marking and lesson planning, are labelled ‘failing and are targeted for capability and or dismissal.”
There is no doubt that union officers, GPs and anyone offering support to teachers who are suffering workplace bullying and harassment can point to many examples such as Dr Bousted describes. The causes of workplace bullying are complex and the wider ideologies at play are undoubtedly difficult to untangle. As Dr Bousted explains, “In our experience, the most effective means of stopping bullying of staff in schools is for members to work together collectively. It is rare for bullying to be an isolated incident. Our advice to our members is to keep notes of all workplace bullying incidents, meet together – off-site if necessary - discuss the issues, undertake a confidential bullying questionnaire, present the findings to the employer and demand action. We’ve sought to place bullying very firmly within the sphere of health and safety and we’ve encouraged our health and safety reps to use their rights under health and safety legislation to battle the scourge of bullying in our schools and colleges. The NEU Mental Health Charter, for example, establishes the principle that every teacher has the right to a safe workplace, and that includes a workplace free from bullying and harassment.”
“You don’t think it could ever happen to you, until one day you realise what’s really happening”
It is wise to know how you would handle a bullying/harassment situation at work regardless of whether it is happening or not. If you don’t need the information for yourself, you may well need it for a colleague. These ideas may help:
- If you suspect that a colleague may be using bullying or harassing tactics against you, talk to a trusted friend or family member to gain perspective on the situation. Remember, your interpretation of events is most relevant, but it can help to hear what others have to say.
- Speak to your line manager (or another trusted colleague if your line manager is the bully) about what is happening. Be calm and focus on the facts. Be absolutely clear about what needs to happen next. Make sure there is a commitment to action and that you know what will be happening, and when, in order to resolve the situation. If this isn’t forthcoming, speak to your union.
- Refute all unfair claims made against you. This can be exhausting, but it is important and will help you to avoid doubting yourself and your abilities.
- Keep meticulous records of what is said and done, the circumstances around this and the impact this had on your work and wellbeing. This will help you to track the actions of your bully and will prove invaluable if you need to take further action to resolve the situation.
- See your GP to discuss what is happening at work. Ask for this discussion to be recorded in your notes.
- Ask for the support of your union.
- Contact Education Support Partnership for support.
- Continue to talk about the bullying with trusted family and friends. It is important that they know what is happening so that they can support you most effectively.
“The hardest thing for me was the realisation that my bully actually wanted me to be psychologically harmed – broken – by his actions.”
Experiencing workplace bullying can be devastating and may leave you in need of psychological support. It is important not to underestimate how draining this situation can be and the impact that it can have on your day to day performance at work.
Remember, while you may decide you need to leave your current teaching post, you do not need to leave the profession unless that is your preference. A move to another school may be just want you need to regain confidence and to create distance between where you are now and the negative experiences of your previous position.
“I remember thinking no one would be able to help, but actually that’s not true. I eventually sought, and received, help from a range of organisations.”
Throughout the process of dealing with workplace bullying, seek, and accept, help. This is perhaps the single most important piece of advice for dealing with workplace bullying and harassment. Specialist organisations like those mentioned above can offer invaluable advice that may prop you up during times of greatest stress. You do not have to tackle this alone.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.