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Jane Soderstrom’s troubles began three years ago, after she got an unexpected raise and public praise by her boss at her new nursing job. Apparently, that didn’t sit too well with some of her coworkers at a home-healthcare office in central Florida. Led by a long-time employee, a clique of nurses started to give Soderstrom the silent treatment, even when it came to work matters. They sighed and rolled their eyes when she walked by; they made a show of sending each other text messages that were clearly about her. As they isolated and undermined her, Soderstrom realized she was the victim of something she thought she’d left behind long ago: Bullying.
“It reminded me of junior high, only they were a lot meaner than the girls I remembered,” says Soderstrom, 51. “It really makes you question yourself because you don’t realize adults can behave this way.”
Bullying is usually associated with kids. Tragic cases like that of Phoebe Prince, the Massachusetts teen who killed herself after being tormented by her peers, have raised awareness of the menace of school-age harassment. Yet experts say that adult bullying is just as prevalent, and often as vicious. “It’s a silent epidemic,” says Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). All too often, though, it gets trivialized or worse yet, glorified. Consider the backbiting aggression and unseemly cat fights that dominate reality shows like Bravo’s Real Housewives series. Kelly Killoren Bensimon of The Real Housewives of New York City called her treatment at the hands of her cast mates “systematic bullying” and filmed a homemade anti-bully PSA that she posted on YouTube.
Bullying can occur in numerous spheres. An August 2010 survey by Zogby International and WBI found that 34 percent of the nation’s workers, or 53 million people, have been the target of bullying on the job. It’s harder to quantify bullying in social settings, but plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s widespread, especially among women. “I frequently hear about moms who move to the suburbs and find themselves ostracized from the established cliques, or the working moms getting shut out at the PTA by the stay-at-home moms,” says Cheryl Dellasega, author of Mean Girls Grown Up. “I’ve even heard of power elites in churches.”
In her book, Dellasega says that bullying behavior is usually traced back to habits formed in high school. “Some women never outgrow these behaviors, turning into adults who slay with a smile and wound with a word,” she writes.
Because this sort of aggression isn’t always overt, it’s sometimes difficult to recognize as bullying. “It is completely possible to be bullied and not realize it, because it is subtle, it’s behind closed doors, and totally deniable,” says Namie. He says targets start to blame themselves for the criticism rather than realizing they are under assault.
In both personal and professional settings, the most common hallmark of bullying is social isolation. It’s usually accompanied by constant criticism and a campaign to demoralize and humiliate the target through destructive gossip. Sabotage or taking credit for your ideas is also frequent -- think of a co-worker “forgetting” to give you an important message or a fellow PTA member asserting your idea for a theme for the school carnival as her own.
The effects of all this can be debilitating, especially in the workplace. According to a 2007 WBI study, 45 percent of bullying victims in the workplace suffer stress-related health problems, like anxiety, panic attacks and clinical depression. Yet despite the damage to their careers and well-being, 40 percent never tell their employer.
For Soderstrom, her two years of persecution took a profound toll. She became depressed and anxious, put on weight and came to dread going to the office. Eventually, she filed a grievance with the human resources department. Even though the company held several meetings about the bullying complaint, including one with Soderstrom and her nemesis, Soderstrom continued to be ostracized. Unsatisfied with the company’s investigation, Soderstrom took unpaid medical leave and filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Her chief tormenter was ultimately demoted, but Soderstrom couldn’t bring herself to return to her job because she felt it was still a “toxic environment.” Only recently has she begun to emerge from her depression and consider a return to nursing after an extended leave. “I’ve finally started to enjoy some things again,” she says.
If you’re being harassed, experts offer the following tips on how to deal with a bully:
Confront the situation directly. A bully may be trying to undercut you because she perceives you to be a threat. Sometimes, a direct conversation can soothe her fears and turn her into an ally. Invite her to a neutral location to talk, ask for her opinion of your relationship or work performance, and request her help in resolving any failings she points out. Ideally, you can enlist her as a mentor rather than an enemy.
Don’t respond emotionally. Keep your cool when dealing with aggression. Breathe deeply and take a walk if you get upset. If you’re at work, take a few days off to calm down and collect your thoughts. If you burst into tears or fly off the handle in public, it will only give your tormenter more ammunition.
Assert yourself. Take the bully aside and look her in the eye. Tell her what she’s doing that you find unacceptable and what you’d like her to do instead. Tell her, “I don’t appreciate how you demean my ideas in public. Please be more respectful.”
Stop blaming yourself. The tendency, especially among women, is to assume that you are doing something wrong if a relationship goes awry. But the reality is some people are insecure, power-hungry and conniving. Don’t allow their behavior to change your perception of yourself.
If all else fails, consider how to exit the situation. Ultimately, you have to determine whether it’s worth being part of a group or institution where you are being harassed and bullied. If you find your work environment unbearable, look for ways to escape the hostility, such as changing your schedule or transferring to a different department. If that isn’t possible, it may be time to start looking for a new employer. In the end, your mental health is more important than your job.