How to beat bullying in the workplace

Cyberbullying can prove particularly insidious


Bullying happens to our patients and sometimes to the doctors in the medical community. As psychiatrists, we need to share information on how to spot it and deal with it in the workplace.

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We can view bullying as the endpoint in a continuum with authority at one end and harassment at the other extreme. Discipline maintains order but those in charge can be misguided or mean spirited.

Bullying is bad and prevalent, but is it inevitable in the workplace? There are three categories: those who get bullied, those who bully, and those who witness bullying. Any one, two, or even all three can apply in a work environment. Some escape the problem, and for them, bullying remains theoretical, a phenomenon to understand.

How do we define bullying? You know it when you see it; bullying interferes with functioning. It includes harsh language, threats, snubbing, screaming, and undermining.

Case is illustrative

Helen, a medical consultant on a surgical unit, was reading a chart when another internist arrived for the same purpose. He introduced himself as a new full-time assistant to the head of medical consultations. Helen greeted him and said: “Since I started with this case, I will continue. There was probably an error in the referral process.” Bill looked concerned. “But he has uncontrolled diabetes.” Taken aback, Helen said: “I think I can handle it. I’ve been on the hospital staff for 25 years.”

Then the bullying began. On occasion, Bill and a resident consulted on patients Helen was treating already, as though her input were nonexistent. When Helen inquired about this, rather than attribute it to an error in communication within a large hospital, Bill diminished the value of her input. She asked, “How many medical consultants does a patient need?” She decided to confront Bill and tell him that he had no reason to treat her with disrespect. After that, Bill’s disparaging remarks intensified and he threatened her saying, “I’m not someone you want to go up against.” Bill sent her an email, “You are demeaning and harsh to the staff; if you want to retain your hospital credentials you must change your behavior.” In her response, Helen agreed to meet with Bill and she emailed, “It is not in my nature to mistreat anyone, staff or patient.” The meeting never happened.

Helen sought me out for psychiatric consultation and psychotherapy because she felt demoralized. Confused by Bill’s assault on her reputation, she needed a strategy and confirmation of her worth. We conceived a plan. Helen decided to get busy and get better. She redoubled her efforts to be cordial, and she remained effective with her patients. I suggested that she confide in a trusted senior attending at the hospital, which she did. She aired her insights to him. Excellence mattered and the threats disappeared. Bill had no power over Helen after all. She was a voluntary attending. She never succumbed to despair; rather she converted her response to the threats into useful energy.


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