Threatening fist with metal rings and tattoos; credit: Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on UnsplashBullying at work is highly correlated to burnout.  Rudeness, genteelly referred to as ‘incivility,” is a big part of bullying at work.

Most discussions of bullying look at the toll it takes on children. Adults do not thrive when bullied, either!  And bullying happens at all kinds of workplaces. It's especially common when the workplace has a strong hierarchical structure: medicine is a prime example.

I was very pleased to be quoted about basic burnout prevention in this article. and I thnk there's a lot more to be said on the subject.

How can we end incivility — rudeness– at work?

Someone who has done a lot of great work on this question is path-breaking burnout researcher Dr. Michael Leiter, PhD.  He's been working with the VA, and other organizations, on a project they call CREW: Civility, Respect and Engagement in the Workplace.  His group has been able to document improvements in job satisfaction and trust in management that are still evident even one year later.

But, at a hierarchical workplace (like the VA!) how do you get universal buy-in, so that such an approach can actually work? Three key baseline requirements of a CREW project caught my eye.

  • Top-down enrollment is required.  Until the CEO and the union leader have okayed the program and are willing to promote it, CREW is unlikely to be successful.
  • Nevertheless, the program must be voluntary. Groups that are forced to participate do not do well with it.
  • The local group must define what civility and respect look like.  Cultural and regional variations mean that one group's civil greetings may be perceived as rude by another.
  • Finally, Leiter emphasizes that a CREW initiative should be used to take a work group from good to great.  CREW does not work in an organization or department with major dysfunctions, because to be successful,  the CREW program requires a baseline of goodwill and trust.

But What Can I Do, Right Now?

CREW interventions are a big lift. What if you're overwhelmed already, and need to start now with just a little more peace in your personal world?

One place you might start is to root “venting” out of your life.  Venting — complaining for the sake of complaining — is often thought of as a kind of safety valve, a way of blowing off (emotional) steam so you don't get still more upset.

Unfortunately, complaining simply to vent is actually both toxic and contagious.  In other words, this kind of negativity can increase emotional overwhelm, and plunge you deeper into distress, whether you are venting your own emotions, or listening to others vent theirs.

Since I am a person who needs to talk about my feelings in order to understand them, this was initially a hard concept for me to grasp.  “You mean I can't ever talk about my own distress? I just have to keep it bottled up forever?”

No, in fact, that's NOT what avoiding venting means.  Instead, avoiding venting means being willing to allow your feelings to evolve, to allow your understanding and mental frameworks to grow.  This can be quite challenging, especially when we feel aggrieved and self-righteous.  Here's a great article on figuring out when you are engaging in (or listening to) toxic venting, and when you're not. When you are, instead, working through your feelings and allowing yourself to grow. Or helping another to do so.   The author, Judith Acosta, psychotherapist, equates an unshakeable commitment to venting as a kind of narcissism.   This article dives deep, perhaps too deep for a work situation.

If you are starting to realize that too often, you are the complainer, you might love this article, instead. It's a short, tough-love, get-your-act-together how-to list, so that you can come off as the professional you know you are. (Crediting Katie Douthwaite Wolf for this terrific summary.)

Hey, I'm just a Great Listener!

If you find that your colleagues love to come to you to complain endlessly because you are such a “great listener,” check this out. This Harvard Business Review article by Sandra Robinson and Kira Schabram discusses how you can reduce your role as a listener to venting, which they define as being a “toxic handler.” If your colleagues love complaining to you, because you always listen, consider their arguments about how and why to stop being available for this.

What If I'm Facing Severe Bullying?

Unfortunately, there's no simple answer (unless you count “finding a better job” as simple. If leaving your job seems like it might be the right answer for you, here's a quick assessment that might help you make the decision to move on, and find a better situation for yourself.)

If you're staying where you are, here's a fantastic set of charts by Laura Newcomer that will validate your feelings and let you know the path you need to follows, as an individual, or as a boss, to manage bullying situation.

If you're the target/survivor of bullying, then you may suffer personal trauma as well. Reaching out for professional help can feel difficult when you feel beaten down or otherwise traumatized, but can be the most healing thing you could do for yourself. Whitney Hawkins Goodman has come up with great one-sentence suggestions for how to reach out to people in your trusted personal circle as well.

Burnout and Bullying

Burnout can result from bullying.  Sometimes, the burned-out person is the one doing the bullying. Either way, bullying is unproductive and toxic behavior.

Let us know your experiences with burnout and bullying in the comments. What dilemmas are you experiencing with bullying? What solutions have you found?