Content warning: this podcast contains information regarding bullying which may be unsettling for some people. Call us on 1800 667 877 if you would like to talk.
Guests: Tessa Moriarty and Elle Brown
Tags: Workplace bullying, harassment, conflict
Soundcloud: Listen to Episode 25
Bullying in the workplace is never OK, but it is a reality for many. The experience can have a detrimental impact on health and wellbeing and may be related to long-term negative impacts.
In the second part of this special double episode of the podcast Mark talks to Tessa Moriarty, a mental health nurse who shares her personal story of workplace bullying and how she recovered from the experience. Tessa shares that by the time she realised she was being bullied both her mental and physical health had been negatively affected.
Elle Brown, Nurse & Midwife Support Senior Clinician also joins us to provide information and insights into what to expect if you contact Nurse & Midwife Support about workplace bullying and/or harassment and how we can assist you.
You are not alone
Many people tell us they feel isolated, fearful and lonely when they are subjected to workplace bullying. It’s important to know that you are not alone. Reach out for support sooner, rather than later. We are always here for you — 24/7, 365, Australia-wide. If you need to talk, give us a call on 1800 667 877 or email us.
You can also check out the first part of this podcast, Workplace factors for bullying and harassment with Karen Gately.
Tessa Moriarty is a credentialed Mental Health Nurse Consultant with over 30 years experience across public, private and primary health care, mental health and drug and alcohol settings. She has worked in a variety of senior leadership and executive roles and is an experienced group facilitator, clinical supervisor and psychotherapist. Much of Tessa’s work in recent years has focused on supporting those working in clinical settings – providing individual and group clinical supervision and reflective practice. She also works as a mental health nurse consultant for Primary Health Networks and always tries to bring a humanistic approach to the clinical governance and service review projects she undertakes.
Elle is part of our nursing and midwifery team that answers calls and emails. She is a registered nurse with 36 years’ experience, including many 25 years’ working in critical care nursing as a clinician and in management roles.
Mark Aitken: Welcome to the Nurse & Midwife Support podcast: Your Health Matters. I’m Mark Aitken, your podcast host. I’m the Stakeholder Engagement Manager with Nurse & Midwife Support and I’m a registered nurse. Nurse & Midwife Support is the national support service for nurses, midwives and students. The service is anonymous, confidential and free. You can call us anytime you need support: 1800 667 877. Or contact us via the website: nmsupport.org.au.
Hello and welcome to the Nurse & Midwife Support podcast: Your Health Matters. Today we’re going to talk about bullying and harassment in the workplace and its impact on nurses, midwives and students. This is the second podcast in this series, in the associated podcast I spoke with HR consultant Karen Gately. We defined and discussed bullying and the strategies for dealing with workplace bullying. In this podcast today, we will discuss a lived experience of workplace bullying with a nurse who unfortunately had this experience. However, who also (fortunately) came through it and wants to tell her story in the hope that it will support other nurses, midwives and students. We also have a member of the Nurse & Midwife Support team with us today to share insights and outline what you can expect if you contact Nurse & Midwife Support. I’d like to welcome the guests today, Tessa Moriarty and Elle Brown. Hello Tessa and Hello Elle!
Tessa Moriarty: Hello Mark, hello Elle.
MA: Thanks very much to both of you, really appreciate it. To recap, actually, we might start with you both introducing yourselves. Tessa, would you please share with us a bit of information about who you are and your background please?
TM: Thanks Mark, certainly. I’m a credentialed mental health nurse, most of my work is actually caring for other nurses. Caring for the carers is what I call it, but not all of it. I work in the primary mental health space. I’ve been a mental health nurse all of my life and in the twilight years of my career I think I love it even more than I did two years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago and I know that I loved it then as well. That’s me and I feel very grateful to be having this discussion with you and Ellenora and sharing these experiences because although my experience was over 10 years ago, I still see bullying and harassment happening in the workplace.
MA: Thanks very much Tessa. Elle, welcome, please share a bit of your background.
Elle Brown: Good afternoon Mark and Tessa. It’s also a privilege for me to be here, speaking with you both today. I just looked it up and I’ve been a registered nurse for 39 years, which is a long stretch. I’d also say that I’m in the twilight of my career. I’m a senior nurse at Nurse & Midwife Support and that is a fantastic and privileged position to be in. I would just like to say that the majority of calls that we receive at Nurse & Midwife Support are around workplace bullying and harassment. It is a particularly big issue in nursing and midwifery.
MA: Thanks Elle. I think it’s really important to note that we’ve done a lot of planning around how we provide information on bullying and harassment. I want to reinforce that Tessa is willingly telling her story, but we won’t be identifying the workplace or the people involved in the incident around bullying apart from Tessa herself. Just a bit more background around bullying in the workplace. Bullying is a workplace hazard that can be extremely harmful to an individual’s health and wellbeing. The psychological and physiological effects from bullying may include:
- high levels of stress
- panic attacks
- sleep disturbances
- loss of self esteem
- self-confidence and feelings of isolation
- muscular tension
- digestive problems
- an impaired ability to make decisions
- frequent crying
- deteriorating relationships.
Bullying can also have a very negative impact on the workplace environment, including:
- low staff morale
- job dissatisfaction
- increased absenteeism
- decreased productivity
- ncreased staff turnover
- costly workers’ compensation claims.
Bullying may also effect the ability of nurses and midwives to do their job, which may result in a reduced capacity to provide high quality care to those who we care for. The effects of this can be such that those experiencing the behaviours may decide to resign from their positon or even leave the profession. I think there’s some pretty profound impacts from peoples’ experiences of bullying. We aim, and our goal is, to create workplaces where bullying does not exist. Just to recap on the definition, workplace bullying is repeated unreasonable behaviour directed at an employee or group of employees’ that creates a risk to health and safety. This may incorporate a broad range of direct or indirect behaviours. There’s more information around bullying and harassment on the Nurse & Midwife Support website: nmsuppport.org.au and we’ll put some links to that information as a part of this podcast. If anything we discuss today, in this podcast, raises issues or concerns with you please know that you can contact Nurse & Midwife Support. Nurse & Midwife Support is a national support service for nurses, midwives and students. The service is anonymous, confidential and free. No matter where you are in Australia, you can contact the service: 1800 667 877 or via the website at nmsupport.org.au
Tessa, I’m going to handover to you now to share as much or as little of your experience of bullying as you’re comfortable with.
TM: Thank you Mark. Thank you for all the care that you’ve taken in setting up this dialogue and this conversation about bullying. I want to start by saying that by the time that I’d realised what was happening to me, that is, by the time that I realised I was being bullied my mental and physical health had in fact been quite negatively impacted. When you read out the effects that bullying can have on a person, I ticked off every one that you went through. Personally, I remember I could barely have a full night’s sleep. I had trouble eating, I remember I lost quite a bit of weight. I dreaded going to work. When I went to work, I had trouble concentrating, focussing, completing tasks and I was often on the verge of tears. I would often find myself in a tearful state behind a closed door in my office, particularly after a bullying session with my bully.
Like you said, I lost confidence. Not just in my usual, enthusiastic, confident and energetic self but I lost the ability to even talk. To speak for myself. Let alone, speak and tell others and my close colleagues that I was being bullied. Where I could, I avoided certain situations. Particularly meetings where I felt that the bullying would occur. One of the biggest things I remember was that I struggled to believe that it was happening to me. That I, Tessa, was being bullied. In hindsight, I was actually denying the reality of it for some time. That’s perhaps why the effect of it was quite devastating, when I realised and was able to call out what was going on. I think that occurred because I felt quite ashamed of what was happening to me and that somehow, I had let this happen. I had let it affect me this way. I can see now that I blamed myself during that period for being bullied, rather than blaming the person who was bullying me.
I had been a very firm, fair, generous nurse. I had been a leader with a very strong work ethic. I was often in the office before others, often the last to leave. Yet, I turned into a completely different person. I lost the ability to be articulate and to feel sure of myself at work. I became someone who felt quite timid, particularly in meetings. I spent a lot of time quite isolated and I felt very unsafe in the workplace and in the work environment. I remember feeling too that there were not a lot of people I could trust. The context in which my bullying occurred meant that some of my colleagues had also been bullied. Not just by the person that was bullying me, but by other senior executives in the organisation. I had lost my immediate boss and a number of my colleagues in what was an organisational restructure. So, I didn’t have the usual people to talk to or rely on. But, I do remember having enough strength and psychological nuance to know that I had a right to the EAP (Employment Assistance Program). I remember making my way to HR, albeit very cautiously, because I had actually lost trust in my bully’s ability to find out what I was doing. I suspected she would even find out that I had been to HR and was using the EAP. In the end, of course, she did find out.
It was the EAP that really helped me. I had clinical supervision and that helped me too, but it was really the particular EAP that I had that really “saved” (if you like) my mental health and helped me make the decision to actually leave the workplace and leave my job. Which was the best decision at the time, but in the process of preparing for the podcast I realised that in fact I feel sad that I actually had to leave the workplace and leave the nursing workforce. It was the only thing that I could do at the time, but it took me out of the workforce for a number of years. Or at least, that workforce. I was able to do other work. But, one of those lasting impacts (maybe I’ll come back to this later) is that I think organisations have much more of a responsibility to ensure that that doesn’t happen. I shouldn’t have had to leave the workforce, let alone the workplace. That’s certainly been one of the long-lasting impacts that it’s actually had on me.
There are a couple of other things I wanted to speak about. Maybe I’ll just speak to one of them at the moment and leave some space for yourself-Mark and Elle to ask questions or speak yourselves. I wanted to talk about one of the myths and misconceptions of workplace bullying. One of them is that, somehow (and this is a myth) that somehow this is your fault. Somehow, you bring it upon yourself to be bullied. It’s something you’ve done or you’re not doing. That is actually how I felt. It wasn’t until I went to EAP and many years later I could see that I was caught in that myth. I know very clearly, now, that it wasn’t my fault. It was nothing to do with me. That’s why I struggled to understand why it was happening to me, because there had been nothing I’d done to bring it on. I think it’s important to know workplace bullying is not your fault. It’s the fault of the bully, it’s even the fault of the organisation and the culture that allows workplace bullying to occur in the first place. I really wanted to say that Mark.
MA: Tessa, thank you very much for sharing that. it’s incredibly powerful to hear you state those things and share those things. Firstly, I’d like to say that I’m really sorry that that happened to you and that that was your experience. I’m very pleased that you were able to come out of that experience and get to the point where you feel comfortable to share the story or parts of the story and your insights because I know that that will help other people who are listening to this podcast. Thank you very much Tessa. You make some incredibly important points. I think what’s really important to note here is that often people do feel a sense of shame around what’s happening to them in relation to bullying. That is really difficult for people to feel, that they are in some way to blame. I’d like anyone listening to this who is having an experience of workplace bullying now, or has had an experience and hasn’t fully resolved it. Perhaps you never do fully resolve it, but help and support is available. If you are feeling any of those emotions or reactions that Tessa has spoken about, please reach out. Nurse & Midwife Support, as I said, is available 24/7 and our staff are incredibly qualified and supportive. They’re available to hear your story and provide you with support. So, Elle is going to talk a bit about what you can expect if you contact Nurse & Midwife Support and what Nurse & Midwife Support can offer you if you call the service. Then we’ll come back to you Tessa. Thanks again, Tessa, for sharing that. Elle, I would like to bring you in now and please feel free Elle to make any comment about Tessa’s story or ask any questions.
EB: Thanks Tessa for sharing with us. As I said before, everyone’s story is somewhat different but lots of people call with the issue of bullying and harassment. What we do, as people on the other end of the phone listening to that is offer an ear. A listening ear, for starters, because people often feel very isolated. Sometimes, if they’re part way through their grievance procedure or the investigation, they’re also told to keep silent or keep the whole thing confidential and not speak about it at all. That’s concerning, because it isolates the person that’s being bullied or harassed. It also causes a lot of people to turn inwards and think, as so beautifully described by Tessa, what is the matter with me? The critic in them is working overtime saying, why me? Why has this happened now? I’m trying to do my best at my job and somehow this is happening to me.
Also, it’s just so pervasive. It’s not just in your work life that the effects of bullying occur. It happens all over your life. It stops you eating, stops you caring for yourself. Stops you from being kind to yourself. I suppose, the first things that we would talk about with bullying or harassment would be about their symptoms and trying to alleviate them. Also, by validating someone’s story and hearing it, you’re also providing help and healing through hearing because they’ve got the opportunity to express themselves. Someone who has had a huge knock to their self-confidence and feeling terrible is likely to feel better once they start talking about it. The fact that it can be anonymous and it’s confidential is a really fantastic thing because it lessens the shame that people might feel. I can’t see you, we can’t see you. We don’t know who you are. That enables you to be open about how you feel. It’s a really hard place to be, but if you reach out and you seek one of the clinicians on the other end of the phone I’m pretty sure that you’ll feel much better once you’ve talked to someone about it.
MA: Thanks very much Elle for those insights and that information. I know people listening to that will find it very useful to know a bit more about what they can expect if/when they contact Nurse & Midwife Support. I think you’ve talked a bit about people having a sense of hope if they’re having this experience, that they will come through it. That life will get better and the experience will be over. Did you have a sense of hope, Tessa, that it would end? Or was that only something that you came to realise once you’d moved through the experience?
TM: Thanks for asking that question Mark, there is a couple of other things that I wanted to say as well. But, no. I didn’t think it would end. I felt like the only way that it would end was for me to leave. In fact, it got to the point where I started second guessing myself and what was going on. Both my supervisor and the counsellor that I was seeing then, really alerted me to the fact that when you start doing that it would actually make you feel worse. It wasn’t until later, when I was out of it. Out of the workplace, away from where the bullying was happening when I’d left the job, that I felt kind of hopeful for myself because I was able to recover and regain the parts of me that the bullying had really damaged. I also feel this hope now for the prevention of bullying, for identifying bullying. For calling out bullies. We didn’t have services, well I don’t remember them, like yours back then. I think the fact that it is still happening is probably that people are talking more about it. I think that too much bullying, 10 years ago or more, went under the carpet. There was a culture that, not only, was the workplace full of bullies but that it was something that you just had to grin and bare. I think services like yours and the way that we call out bullying gives a really hopeful message that bullying isn’t ok. It won’t be tolerated and it’s very serious, so much so that there’s a law against bullying and it carries a very serious criminal charge. People have killed themselves because they’ve been bullied in the workplace. I think we do take it much more seriously now.
There are a couple of things that I also wanted to talk about. One feeds into what you said Elle, something about your service being something that people who are being bullied can trust. I think that there’s something really important about the loss of trust. That’s a long-term effect that bullying had on me. I would say now to people who either feel they’re being bullied or can see that someone else is being bullied, that you need to find someone you can trust to talk to. For me, it was someone outside the workplace. I think it’s really important, to some degree, to go outside the workplace. To find someone that you can talk to and actually trust. I think that’s unfortunate and I think it has changed, a little bit, from when I was in the workplace. But, yes, I feel much, much more hopeful about how we talk about bullying, how we can prevent bullying. How we can manage bullying now. But, the only other thing I wanted to talk about was the long-term effect. Like I said before, the fact that it took me from the workplace. I didn’t realise that until I got into the subject that I am quite sad that I had to leave that particular workplace when I did. In hindsight, I would’ve liked to have stayed a lot longer than I actually did. I think organisations have a responsibility too because we have such workplace shortages, we have a right to hold on and take care of people and not make them leave because they are being bullied.
The only other thing I wanted to say was that it has left within memistrust, it is a really hard word to say, but I’ll say it because it’s a weariness that I have. When I am, myself, counselling people who are being bullied. I come from a place of knowing that there’s still a part of me that’s weary about whether a person can trust the processes to support bullying or not within their organisation. That is a lasting, long term effect that I still have. Thank you, Mark and Elle.
MA: Well thanks Tessa for once again sharing those insights and those heartfelt experiences that I know many have stayed with you. I’m interested to explore a bit more about your recovery from bullying Tessa. I know that you have, for the most part, recovered from that experience. You’ve talked about the factors that did support you to recover. These include the Employee Assistance Program, clinical supervision and talking to someone outside the workplace. Did that include somebody in your personal life? If yes, was that important? What advice would you give to a person around reaching out to someone in their personal life as well as a professional person to get support?
TM: Absolutely, yes. What helped me in my recovery was actually a couple of my friends. One of them in particular wasn’t a nurse, one of them was, but they were both friends outside that particular workplace. They reinforced what the counsellor and my supervisor was saying to me, that what was happening to me wasn’t ok. What it was actually doing to me, I think I realised the impact and effects of the bullying quite late. The other thing that helped me recover was that I was able to keep working. I had lost such a lot of faith and confidence, I had lost my sense of esteem and efficacy as a professional. I was a leader, I worked at an executive level. I found other work in a similar but different sector and that really helped, to be able to keep working and knowing that I was ok. It wasn’t my fault. I still had skills and knowledge and I was still very capable. I gave myself time, a lot of time before I went back into a similar workplace. I never went back to that workplace, but I went back into that particular sector in different roles. Later, maybe six or seven years later, in similar roles but only for short periods of time. So, friends definitely helped. Counselling, supervision and other little things that are always my go-to recovery strategies like being outside, being in my garden, being with my family, those sorts of things. They helped as well.
MA: Yeah, thank you Tessa. I think, if you’re listening to this and really connecting with what Tessa is saying. What I hear often from people who are having an experience of workplace bullying is that they don’t feel like they can speak to anyone about it. Or, they carry shame around it and because of that shame they don’t reach out for support. Or indeed, as Elle said, a workplace might tell them that they can’t speak to anyone about it at work. In hearing that, people often think that it means that they can’t speak to anyone at all. But, what you’re really reinforcing here is the importance of talking to somebody, being believed, being validated, being supported, being cared for and caring for yourself. Accessing professional help, giving yourself time and engaging in your self-care. Have I got that right Tessa? Is there anything else that you would add in there?
TM: Yes, you have Mark. I was even weary of EAP because I wondered about the connection back to the organisation that the councillor might have. That’s how fragile my sense of trust was. That’s how much it had been damaged. There were three obligatory sessions, I don’t know if you remember back in the day, we were all allowed three sessions.
MA: I do, and I think they are still three sessions with the ability to access more at I think your managers’ discretion.
TM: So, I was weary. After maybe the second session I realised that I could trust the counsellor and I actually asked for more. It was because she believed me. She said something that I’ve carried with me to this day. She said, when I was talking about my shame and embarrassment that perhaps it was my fault, she said “Stop it. Stop. Please stop that, right here right now. That’s crazy making, hearing you talk like that.” You know, she actually used those words and they’re not the politically correct kind of words to use. But, what she meant and went on to explain was that it was making me doubt myself which I’d never done before. Well, of course I had, but not in that kind of way. So, then I trusted her. Then, in spite of my boss being my bully, I actually insisted that I have more sessions.
MA: Then you got the support that you needed which helped your recovery? To come through the experience?
TM: Yes, yes.
MA: Thanks Tessa. Elle, back to you and back to information around what somebody could expect if they contacted Nurse & Midwife Support about an incident of workplace bullying. Maybe if you could talk a bit about our model of brief intervention counselling and referral pathways? I imagine that people listening to this might be interested in what a referral pathway for somebody experiencing bullying and seeking support from us might include?
EB: Ok Mark. I think Tessa made the most salient point about talking to someone. As you so rightly say, we have a brief intervention counselling and possible referral model. The service doesn’t actually case manage. When you ring, you will speak to a clinician and possibly tell them your story. Hopefully, you will get what you require from that brief intervention. You can call back at any time and the service certainly doesn’t ration the number of calls you might make. The length of the call is also not rationed, so you’re free to speak for as long as you need. But, a possible referral pathway for someone who is experiencing bullying and harassment could look like asking the person whether they belong to their union. Unions have a very robust process around dealing with bullying and harassment. Talking to people about the benefits of an Employee Assistance Program and seeing a counsellor. Also, talking to people about accessing some personal leave via their general practitioner and also formulating a mental health plan and enabling them to see a psychologist at a subsidised rate. Which is a really helpful thing for you to frame what’s happened to you. Also, help you on the way to recovery.
The other things that you might also access could be an industrial lawyer if that’s the case. Or a financial services person to look at your economic issues and perhaps help you in that way. People don’t approach the telephone and call with a clear idea of exactly what they need. Various issues around going to work or not being at work can come up. It is very individualised. We would talk to people about having a look at their policies and procedures, both grievance and bullying and harassment for the organisation that they work for. Depending on how they feel about it, contacting HR and thinking about a formal process but certainly not saying to people, “That’s what you must do.” What Tessa so beautifully talked about was the fallout from bullying and harassment. The loss of productivity of the person that’s being bullied, but also, it’s not just that bullied person, it’s everyone around them who witnesses it and see’s someone in obvious ill health because of what’s been done to them at work. That has a very pervasive effect. As Tessa quite rightly says, that is an organisational issue. I’ve got a question for you Tessa, about trust and hypervigilance. Do you think that that was an issue for you as well, in your post-bullying episode?
TM: Absolutely. I mean, look, I’m a nurse. I’m a vigilant person anyway, I notice a lot. That’s right, I was incredibly hypervigilant while I was being bullied and afterwards. It did put me on edge for quite a while as well. It fed into the lack of trust that I felt. In some ways, that I still feel in an organisation”s commitment to really care. Really, really care for their staff. I’m not sure if that’s what you meant Elle.
EB: That is what I mean, Tessa. Also, it feeds back to the kindness to self and the kindness of people around you and the kindness of an organisation that exists to care for others. It feels like a clashing of values when your job is to care for others and yet you are being treated in an unkind way.
TM: That’s the irony of it, isn’t it? So many nurses get into trouble, as I think I did, where there’s a disconnect between what we’re meant to be doing/what it feels like we’re doing and how the environment that’s meant to be a healing/hearing environment doesn’t always feel that way.
MA: Thanks Elle and Tessa, you make some very, very powerful and important points. I really appreciate your insights. As we come to the end of the podcast, I’m really interested Tessa in your view about what you would say to a nurse/midwife or student out there who may be experiencing workplace bullying at the moment.
TM: There’s so many different things. So much that what I would say is, say something. If you don’t feel that you can say something, find someone within the organisation to start with. This is on top of everything both of you have said, but do something. Say something sooner rather than later. Find someone inside and/or outside the workplace to tell. To talk to, about what is going on. I think that’s really important. Know that what is going on is not ok. That you are being bullied.
MA: Thanks Tessa, so a message of hope I think? That support is available. As we’ve said many times throughout the podcast, support is available and it’s only a phone call or a click away: Nurse & Midwife Support, 24/7, Australia wide, 1800 667 877 or contact us via the website at nmsupport.org.au
Thank you very much Tessa. Elle have you got anything that you would like to say to people listening to the podcast?
EB: I would just like to echo Tessa and say that when you feel that something is not right, it isn’t right. Call it out and speak about it. Find the person to trust and speak about it. Please call us, we will support you.
MA: I’ll just pick up that point also, that a lot of people don’t feel safe to do that. I think that that’s a really important point to make, the safety element around this. If the person bullying you is your manager, sometimes you don’t feel safe to call it out or do that. Tessa, did you have anything to say on that?
TM: Ditto, particularly if your bully is your manager. Just find someone.
MA: Thank you very much to both of you, have you got any final words of wisdom? Which is how I always end a podcast. I ask our wonderful guests to add any final words of wisdom. Tessa, first, do you?
TM: I haven’t, but I’m just so grateful. Both for this opportunity and for the work that you and your team do. Thank you, Mark. And thank you Elle.
MA: Thank you very much for sharing your story, really appreciate it. I know that people listening to this will benefit from your honesty, experience and wisdom in relation to this. So, thank you very much. Elle, do you have anything final that you would like to add?
EB: I would like to add that, you should have hope that there will be change. That you will be better, you will get better and you will be healthy.
MA: Thanks very much Elle. Once again, thank you very much to our guests, but also thank you very much to those who are listening to this and those who may be experiencing bullying in the workplace or have experienced it, we send you our best wishes and our care. As Elle and Tessa both say, our hope that you will get through this. Our sincere support that if you reach out, that support is available and you will get through this. Please, once again, contact Nurse & Midwife support: 1800 667 877. Thank you very much, look after yourselves and each other. Let’s all work together to create workplaces that are bullying free. I’ll speak to you next time, this is all really important because your health matters.