Is your boss ruining your relationship New research says unhappiness at work can take its toll on your personal life
With less than six months until her wedding, Natalie Trice, 37, and her fianc Oliver were arguing more than ever. Most evenings had become fraught, with tears from her and stern words from him.
Although it’s common for many brides and grooms to have the odd tiff as pressure builds for the big day, Natalie and Oliver’s rows were caused not by their seating plan or the wedding budget, but because she was being severely bullied at work.
It’s no surprise that workplace bullying results in low morale, or that numerous studies suggest it’s responsible for 30 to 50 per cent of all stress-related illnesses in the workplace.
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Then there’s the cost to the economy — millions of days are lost to businesses each year as a result of absenteeism caused by bullying. But new research shows that bullying in the workplace can also put severe strain upon, or even wreck, a marriage.
For anyone who hasn’t suffered bullying at work, this may sound contradictory. After all, your home should be your solace; a sort of ‘you and me against the world’ oasis of calm and support.
But much like playground bullying — which will cause a child to withdraw socially and from their family — your closest relationships cease to be the sanctuary that they should be.
I speak from experience. I was severely bullied by a male colleague who took exception to me when I justifiably disagreed with him about an issue while we were working for the press department of a major international company. When I’d first taken the job a year earlier, colleagues had warned me that this individual was a ‘poisonous character, not to be crossed’, but there was little I could do to limit my interaction with him.
Over several months he mounted a hate campaign against me via email, telephone and any other means he could muster. He questioned my integrity, my ability to do my job and constantly undermined me in front of everyone from junior staff who reported to me to board directors.
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Being persistently bullied, and with a boss and an HR department who initially refused to take my complaints further, left me a nervous wreck, totally racked with self-doubt. My confidence was in tatters.
I’d often cry on my way to and from work and spend my time there in a permanent state of anxiety. Away from work, I became withdrawn, self-conscious and preoccupied to socialise.
Small wonder, then, that it had a huge impact on my relationship with my fianc — now my husband.
Furious and in protective mode, his reaction was that I must resign. And that’s where we locked horns. No way would I resign! I’d done nothing wrong and would stick it out to clear my name.
It caused arguments and tension. Never mind the fact that I would fly off the handle at the slightest thing at home. But, ultimately, there was a moment of clarity when we realised we had to stand together. He accepted my need not to resign and I accepted his insistence that we hired an employment lawyer.
Reprisals followed, including the dismissal of my boss.
My bully, though, escaped with nothing more than a finger wagging. I left the company of my own accord a year later.
‘Bullying in the workplace manifests as physical or verbal bullying, both in person or by email or text message, as well as through exclusion and victimisation,’ says Sarah Hamilton-Fairley, chief executive of social enterprise StartHere, which puts vulnerable and distressed people in touch with services and charities that can help.
‘Sometimes it might take a more subtle form, such as being repeatedly blocked for a promotion or a pay rise. It can interfere with a victim’s confidence, affect their work, lead to illness and cause difficulties with friendships, family and romantic relationships.’
Hounded: Natalie Trice was put on anxiety medication due to bullying at work
What makes Natalie Trice’s experience particularly surprising is that when it happened five years ago she was second in command of the communications team at a national disability charity, whose main purpose was to stop prejudice and promote fairness.
‘I’d previously had a senior role with a TV company where I’d been liked and respected, but had long wanted to work in the charity sector,’ explains Natalie, who lives in Marlow, Bucks, with husband Oliver, also 37, a chartered surveyor, and their sons Eddie, four, and Lucas, two.
‘Even at interview stage, I’d been warned that there was one notoriously difficult member of staff.
‘He took a dislike to me, constantly making personal and insulting comments to and about me. He also undermined me at every opportunity and blatantly excluded me from team social gatherings. I wondered what on earth I’d done to make someone hate me so much.
‘They could see what he was doing, but not one colleague took a stand against his behaviour — in fact, they mirrored it. Even the receptionists at the office began to ignore me.
‘My bully told me: “I managed to get the woman out who worked here before you and I’ll get you out, too.” ’
Such was the effect on Natalie’s health that her GP prescribed propranolol, a drug to help with anxiety. ‘Oliver’s solution was that I should resign,’ she adds. ‘But that would be like admitting defeat.
‘Oliver and I argued constantly because he didn’t think I was taking the action I should, and I felt he didn’t understand the reasons why. The only thing on my mind was work and yet Oliver didn’t always want to talk about it.’
Natalie only resigned after finding out she was unexpectedly pregnant.
‘Oliver really put his foot down and told me, “I don’t care about your CV or what you have to prove, this is a baby we’re talking about.”
‘I resigned and made a complaint against my colleague. I was told the bully had been given a paltry written warning even though he destroyed my confidence and my health. I couldn’t eat or sleep and was having regular panic attacks.
“My husband told me to quit but I didn”t want to. We rowed all the time”
‘After having my baby I suffered from postnatal depression, which I’m sure was influenced by being bullied at work.’
Mercifully Natalie’s relationship with her husband, though badly shaken, was ultimately unscathed.
Others haven’t fared so well. Tamsin Featherstone survived being bullied at the international food manufacturer where she was a marketing manager, but her five-year marriage didn’t.
‘When two senior women at work began to systematically bully me in January 2008 after I’d been promoted it exposed cracks in my marriage,’ says Tamsin, 37, who is originally from Lancashire, but moved to Abu Dhabi for a fresh start after her divorce two years ago.
‘My husband and I both had demanding jobs — he was the director of an international property company — and this had already been putting our marriage under strain. But the drip, drip of being bullied for over six months left my self-esteem in pieces.
‘I lost over a stone, couldn’t sleep, and the one person I should have been able to seek comfort from — my husband Tom — was always too busy dashing to this meeting, or that dinner, to talk about how I was feeling.
‘He’d tell me to grow a thick skin, which made me more distressed. Then he’d blow up at me, saying he’d got enough stress with his own job without dealing with mine, too. My being bullied wasn’t the only cause of our marriage breakdown, but it was certainly the final straw.’
According to Paula Hall, a counsellor with relationship experts Relate, it’s the difference in male and female attitudes to bullying that can so often drive a wedge between them.
Knock-on effect: Being bullied at work can lead to ill-health and even divorce (posed by models)
‘A woman will most likely be incredibly upset,’ she explains. ‘But her partner’s protective and more black-and-white approach will typically be focused on telling her to leave, toughen up or fight back.
‘Bullying is like any other crisis in your life. It causes you to withdraw. You don’t feel like you, so you don’t behave like you either.’
Dr Nic Hammarling is an expert in workplace bullying with business psychology consultants Pearn Kandola, and has seen many marriages founder in such circumstances.
‘The job we do forms a big part of our social identity and when that’s undermined we start to question who we are,’ she says.
CRY FOR HELP
Social workers, nurses and teachers are most likely to call a bullying advice line
‘It also affects us physically, leading to sleep loss, which affects our ability to interact rationally, plus high blood pressure and loss of libido.’
Sex was one of the first casualties when Charlotte Bird was severely bullied two years ago after returning to work as a senior analyst at a financial services company following six months’ maternity leave. Her bully was a new line manager.
‘I had to return to work for financial reasons and was already vulnerable as a first-time mum having to leave my baby,’ says Charlotte, who lives in Horley, Surrey, with her husband Antony, toddler Ella and new baby Romy.
‘This was a company where I’d worked for ten years, and where I’d long been respected. I was still committed to my career, but wanted to work four days a week so I could spend time with my family.
‘My boss flitted between completely ignoring me and any emails I sent, to making personal remarks about what he saw as me having a lack of commitment to the job by asking for part-time hours.
‘My husband’s initial reaction was that I was being oversensitive. We rowed more than we ever had. Thankfully, my parents suggested we should pull together instead of pulling each other apart.’
Charlotte filed an official grievance against her boss and another member of the team who’d jumped on his bandwagon, and both were disciplined.
She and Natalie were lucky because they rescued their marriages from troubled waters and their self-confidence slowly recovered. But for Tamsin Featherstone, the decree absolute in the desk of her rented apartment will for ever be a reminder of how the two bullies at work also brought her marriage crashing down.
Names have been changed.