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Verbal and Emotional Abuse at Work

You have been having a tough time at work. Recently your manager told you were to slow and are dragging down the whole department. On another occasion he had a temper tantrum because you did not have a report ready before agreed deadline. In an effort to score some favour with your manager you decide to create a proposal for a new programme. You have spent the last few weeks working on the proposal, doing research, investigating the potential success and financial gain, you truly believe this will be a revolutionary intervention … feeling confident you decide to present it to your manager. You walk into his office filled with trepidation and excitement and hand him the proposal. He takes one look at the cover page and tosses it aside stating he does not have time for silly indulgences and cannot believe you had the time to waste on such a “project”.

This is a classic example of emotional and verbal abuse in the workplace. We have all heard stories of the tough boss, the boss or co-worker with a short fuse, perhaps some of you have experienced people like this yourselves? So the big question is what do we do about it and why should we even speak about this type of abuse today. When people hear the word abuse the general picture that forms is of physical violence, a battered wife, a child being hit or other physical attacks. These are serious issues and should not be shied away from in addition to the physical there are other types of abuse. Verbal and emotional abuse that although not always seen can be just as harmful.

So what is verbal and emotional abuse? It is easy to recognize abuse when it is in your face, a person openly criticizing you. Criticism is different to constructive feedback. When feedback is constructive you are left understanding where you can improve and feel you were part of the feedback process. There are both positive and negative remarks, however the negative remarks are always given with respect and the intention to help you learn. Criticism or destructive feedback often uses profanity, belittles you and leaves you disempowered having learned nothing. Examples of this is calling your idea stupid or ridiculous, it can feel humiliating and leave you ashamed. Sometimes this is done in the open and others witness the abuse, other times it is done behind closed doors and may leave the you confused wondering what they did wrong and even if the abuse was justified. Often a victim of this type of abuse will develop self-doubt and low self-esteem. They will constantly question why they are the target and if they need to be better. A real danger is that when the abuse occurs behind closed doors others may feel you are to blame and perhaps your work is not up to standard. This can create a vicious cycle and increase the feelings of doubt. Some abuse, such as screaming and name-calling, is easily recognized. Other types of abuse are more subtle and difficult to detect. No matter the type of abuse, however, the negative effects are lasting and powerful. We may ask what does the abuser want and why do they treat others in this way? The abuser has an underlying need to feel powerful and gains this power by taking the power away from the victim. Verbal abusers tend to disrespect others regularly. The abuser disempowers you constantly and undermines you by talking over you, speaking behind your back and often blaming others for their own shortcomings. It might not seem like it, but ignoring others is another subtle sign of abuse. For example, your coworker may happily chat with everyone around you but fail to acknowledge your presence. This type of abuse is dangerous and may have long term effects. According to the April 2007 issue of the “Harvard Mental Health Letter,” people who experience persistent and severe verbal abuse risk developing post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, dissociation disorders and depression. When verbal abuse occurs at the office it makes coming to work unbearable and work performance is bound to decrease. This creates a variety of problems for the victim’s boss and company. Many people who are disrespected or are being abused feel that if they treat the abuser the way they want to be treated (with kindness, compassion, acceptance and respect) that the abuser will change their behaviour to match victims. This sadly is often not the case and the abuse may even escalate. As verbal abusers demean their victims, it can be difficult to gather the strength to confront them. There are some options that you can take if you are being abused to regain your own power. Some believe that if you tell the abuser that you do not appreciate their actions however this may backfire and you be labeled as weak or sensitive giving the abuser another excuse to berate you. As verbal abuse does not leave visible scars and bruises if you record the conversations you are able to gain physical evidence of the abuse. Sometimes by showing the recorder to the abuser may be enough to change the behaviour, other times by playing back the exchange so they can hear how they sound is effective. When the abuse does not stop you have evidence to take to a superior and ask that the abuser be reprimanded or removed.

LifeLine’s interventions against office abuse: So what does LifeLine offer that helps bring down abuse in the workplace? We offer many courses that focus on communication, respect and empathy. We believe that when one person is able to actively listen to another, without interruption and understand what they have heard they have already begun respecting the other person on a deeper level. We also offer courses on diversity training. Sometime abuse may stem from cultural differences of beliefs. A common belief is that men are more powerful than women another is that my definition of respect is the only way and YOU need to fit in. Through diversity training we look at people as individuals with their own stories, life paths and beliefs. We focus on understanding these beliefs and move to a place of acceptance that allows all people to be seen as not be more than or less than each other but rather equals each with their own values and skills to offer. This allows people to work together rather than against each other. Our assertiveness training gives people the skills to voice differences, complaints etc. without blame. We always focus on what impact the conflict has on the individual and teaches them to voice this from themselves. For example imagine you have been waiting for a document from a coworker to complete your report. Rather than lashing out and saying YOU are the problem and now because of YOU my work won’t be completed on time, YOU are selfish and lazy and should have given it to me already. Rather, the skill taught is to say when I am waiting on work from others to complete my work it causes me great stress and anxiety because I am worried I will not meet my deadline, please let me know when the document will be ready and if possible please prioritize getting it to me. This removes blame and allows the other person to see why it is important to work on the document. In the cases where the abuse is persistent and serious it is important that the victim finds support. This support may come from a friend, coworker or counsellor. LifeLine offers an employee wellness service that can be used by corporates. This is a confidential and safe space where people can access support from a trained counsellor. Here you can speak to someone and re-empower yourself.

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