Podcast: Episode 4 ~ Workplace Bullying

Sara talks with Professor Michelle Tuckey on the subject of workplace bullying that not only has terrible psychological and physical effects on those who experience – and those who also witness – bullying, but the Australian Human Rights commission has stated that it can cost the Australian economy between $6-$36 billion dollars a year due to poor morale, decreased productivity and absenteeism among many more. Sara speaks of her own experience with bullying and how she struggled for many years afterwards as it affected her life and her self-confidence. 

Hi everyone, thank you for joining me on the Moral Traveller. Today I will be interviewing Professor Michelle Tuckey from the University of South Australia on the subject of workplace bullying.

This podcast is all about human rights, but also about our personal stories and I want to talk more than I usually would in advance of my interview, because I myself was a victim of bullying. It is a very personal and very challenging story of mine to share, but I think about Brodie Panlock, a 19-year-old woman who experienced bullying from the men that she worked with at a local café in Melbourne, who ultimately took her own life, and it is heartbreaking to know that there so many people who have suffered from bullying as I have.

Bullying behaviour in the workplace is not simply just openly obvious and irresponsible behaviour such as yelling, swearing and intimidation, but can include also psychological harassment such as excluding or isolating, being assigned with meaningless work or being completely overworked, undermining work performance among so much more. People who experience bullying in the workplace can develop stress, depression or anxiety, are prone to illness, sleeplessness and insomnia, and at its worst, suicidal behaviour.

It took me many years after the experience to recover, and I changed from job to job out of complete fear that I will be bullied again, pushing people that care about me away, and having incredibly low self-esteem in my work as well as my physical appearances. All my confidence was taken from me.

It started with him saying comments about me to other workers, and they disclosed to me nasty things that he was saying, which made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and isolated. Even directly to me, whenever I would talk he would cut me off, complain, roll his eyes, or sigh really loudly, constantly belittling and undermining me, and he was often aggressive about it where I actually felt like I had to stay silent.

But it was the indirect threats and gaslighting that was the worst part about my experience. He would say that he had a secret bunker in the middle of nowhere and if he killed someone no one will ever know, that he owns a gun, that women deserved to be bashed, and where he once stood up and out of nowhere told me to watch a movie “Irreversible” which is about a woman who gets brutally raped. He would talk about how he was once a neo-Nazi and he would watch violent videos or listen death metal while at work, whatever it was, he was always suggesting that he was ready for violence.

Every day, comments about my looks and making me feel ugly, about my work and making me feel incompetent, repeated over and over again, all telling me that I was worthless and where I was always looking over my shoulder worried he was going to do something bad to me.

I developed severe anxiety. I could not sleep. I could not eat. Finding myself crying in the bathroom when I was at work, and as I deteriorated further, my hands would shake uncontrollably or I would walk out of the bathroom with red eyes from the crying, I started to look weird. I started making mistakes, not wanting to come into work, feeling thoroughly exhausted and it became easier for him to say that I had the problem. The worst part about it was that I thought there was something wrong with me, that what he was doing to me was somehow my fault, and I started to believe that I was worthless.  

Unknown to me at the time, I was in flight mode, my mind became so anxious that it was seeking ways to make me feel safe from his threats. Eating was not important, sleeping was not important, but in this restless feeling of panic, it felt like I needed to find a solution to his aggression, trying to help him and wanting him to be my friend, showing him that I was no competition or threat at work by helping him with his work or trying to get him promoted. I would even talk about myself and my history to try and generate some empathy from him, anything to stop him from targeting me. It only made him worse.

After seven months, I had a car accident and while in hospital, my friend who was watching my phone was astonished to read that he was sending me messages asking for my computer password, and even more astonished at my delirious reaction, which was to show that I was not injured and completely fine because I was so nervous of appearing vulnerable to him and giving him the opportunity to act on his threats.

I left work completely thinking that it would be the last that I would see of him, but when I was recovering at home, I received numerous facebook requests from fake accounts, calls on my phone where no one would say anything on the other end, and because our jobs gave us access to private information like home addresses, I became absolutely paranoid that he was going to look me up in the system and find out where I lived.

I started having the most horrible panic attacks where I would collapse onto the ground in pain and sometimes that pain would last over an hour. I was so scared at that point that I left my home because I was living on my own, and I went to live with other women, slept on a bunkbed in the same room with another woman because I was so afraid of him.

Violence is not just physical, I was never physically hurt, but the idea that he could and he would hurt me was probably worse because the effects were continuous.

I was battling for years oscillating between flight and fight mode, I had dropped down to 50kg and I was in and out of hospital, because I stopped eating. It was like part of me just gave up. But, another part of me was trying to fight that and regain that sense of empowerment, finding myself wandering through places that I knew might trigger a panic attack to try and feel strong and fearless.

After about four years, I confronted him because – first and foremost I felt that it was safe to do so – but also because I felt like I needed to. He was very good at making me think that I had the problem, very good at playing mind games and he took away my voice and my ability to defend myself. I needed to say something, to speak out and tell him that he hurt me.

He initially apologised, but his apology was very rehearsed like it was something he had to say, more like he was sorry that I felt that way as though it had nothing to do with him and removed any accountability on his part. If it was me, I would have done so much more to show that I really cared, but instead he spent time justifying and making excuses for his behaviour, saying that he thought that I was strong enough to handle his comments, until finally he concluded that I was just jealous of him. He showed no real remorse, no real compassion, and no real empathy, basically it was all me and it had nothing to do with him.

There is nothing worse than having someone who has mistreated you boast and congratulate himself as though his life is wonderful in comparison to yours, and his suggestion I am jealous only reaffirmed that he thinks he is better than me and that I am worthless.

What I realised from that brief conversation was that I actually think that he is not aware of how badly he behaved. Now, to make it clear, he knew exactly what he was doing and how it was affecting me, he did it consciously and on purpose, but I believe that he thinks that he is entitled and permitted to act that way.

I don’t need to forgive him, you can’t forgive someone who doesn’t even comprehend that he has done anything wrong, but I can feel empathy for him. He is so disconnected from his own humanity and believes in these delusions of power and gender stereotypes, which means that he will never really understand genuine friendship and that loving bond between equals who don’t want anything other than respect for their inherent dignity.

We are all guilty of – sometime in our working life – where we come into work maybe after a stressful evening at home and we do or say something that is offensive, but it is just a once-off and we often feel bad about it and never do it again. But bullying is repeated, day after day, week after week, it is continuous because it is intentional. There are many possibilities of why he chose to attack me, maybe I am an easy target, maybe there was someone in his life that he was really angry with but he couldn’t do or say anything to them and so instead he took out all his aggression on me, whatever it was, the question really is, why did he get away it?

When I reflect back at that time, I remember people at work would say different things to me like “Oh he is only behaving that way because he likes you” as though it gave him permission and it excused such behaviour, while others were scared of him and did not want to interfere. I spoke to my manager about his behaviour and my manager joked and laughed like he was just a funny, harmless bogan. I wanted to reach out to Human Resources, but I had no support and aside from being afraid of him, I was being told that I needed to tolerate and accept his behaviour like everyone else.

All those years that I suffered could have been prevented if my manager took responsibility to protect me from harm, if he acknowledged that violence is not just physical and took bullying seriously. He should have willingly guided and supported people like me who reached out. And my employer should have made every effort to change the culture by constantly talking about and embracing important workplace values, educating all who work there to change their attitude to bullying so that they can better understand appropriate workplace behaviour. The company that I was working for enabled him and failed to protect me.

My next guest Michelle Tuckey discusses how workplaces actually provide the mechanisms that enable bullying behaviour and that, in effect, it is workplaces that need to change. Michelle is a Professor of Work & Organisational Psychology and part of the leadership team at the Centre for Workplace Excellence at the university of South Australia. She is interested in psychosocial influences on well-being at work, so most of her research is in the area of occupational health psychology, focusing mostly on workplace bullying, occupational stress, and mindfulness. So, please welcome Michelle.


Professor Michelle Tuckey

Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology | Centre for Workplace Excellence | University of South Australia

Michelle’s research focuses on designing mentally healthy workplaces that are resistant to workplace bullying and occupational stress. Her research advances the risk management of bullying as a work health and safety hazard, including evidence-based practical tools and interventions to tackle the organisational risk factors. Michelle’s other lines of research explore how to: create an organisational climate that supports mental health, promote high-quality leadership to foster well-being, and harness mindfulness at work. Michelle has over 100 publications including peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, edited books, and articles for industry publications. Her research has been applied in a range of organisations and by health and safety regulatory bodies nationally and internationally to prevent bullying and stress at work.

For more information, please visit her bio available at the University of South Australia and the Analysis and Policy Observatory.

If you are experiencing bullying or harassment, or know someone who is, please see support services information here and reach out for some support. You can also contact the Human Rights Commission for further information.