The Voice to Call It Out: The mental health impact of bullying – a personal experience

Tessa Moriarty
By the time nurse Tessa realised she was being bullied her mental and physical health had been negatively affected. This is how she dealt with it.

photo of nurse's eyes above mask

By the time I realised I was being bullied both my mental and physical health had been negatively affected. We were going through a turbulent organisational restructure that became the backdrop of an extended period of bullying by a senior colleague. 

I had problems sleeping and eating.  I had lost weight, dreaded going to work, had trouble concentrating, focusing on and completing tasks and I was often anxious and tearful.  At work I had lost my confidence, my enthusiasm and my voice to speak at all, let alone to tell my close colleagues what was happening to me.  

I avoided certain meetings and felt powerless to address (let alone change) that I was being bullied by someone in a senior executive role — someone in a position of power and influence in the organisation where I worked. 

I didn’t just avoid telling anybody else about the bullying. I struggled to admit it to myself. In hindsight I think I denied the reality of it because I felt ashamed that it was happening. I blamed myself rather than my bully. Also it was difficult to admit to because I convinced myself that I was being singled out because I wasn’t good enough at my job. 

Me, of all people.  I’d rarely lacked confidence before. I’d seen myself as a professional leader who was hard-working, fair, firm but generous. I had a strong work-ethic. I was often in the office before others and frequently last to leave.  I had the respect of my program colleagues and my immediate team.  I’d always been articulate and sure of myself at work.

I became someone who felt alone, isolated, unsure of my abilities and incredibly unsafe in the work environment.  My sense of esteem and efficacy plummeted.  The bullying introduced a pervasive sense of self-doubt across all of my work activity.  

I was subjected to humiliation in meetings, given unreasonable and unrealistic performance targets. In individual line management meetings, I was intimidated and cross examined about matters outside my role — matters that I had no responsibility for or knowledge of. I was made to feel incompetent and useless for not having the answers.  Frequently, I left the line-management meetings in tears. 

There were few people to trust and even fewer to reach out to.  I did, however, have enough psychological strength and the knowledge to seek out a meeting with Human Resources —though I believed that this was a risky thing to do.  Not for a minute did I trust that the conversation I had with the Human Resources staff would remain confidential.  I was careful not to disclose too much for fear of recriminations and the likelihood that the colleague who was bullying me would find out. 

I requested the support of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to manage the stress of the organisational restructure, rather than say out loud what was happening to me.
Thankfully, the EAP and my own external clinical supervision saved my mental health.  Not my job — I left some months later —but my mental and physical health and wellbeing. 

The impact of bullying — a serious workplace issue

Bullying is a serious issue in workplaces across Australia and a key risk factor for anxiety, depression and suicide. Workplace bullying doesn't just hurt those involved, either. The wider workplace also feels the effects through lost productivity, increased absenteeism, poor morale, and time spent documenting, pursuing or defending claims. It is estimated to cost Australian organisations between $6 billion and $36 billion a year.

Workplace bullying can affect people in a number of ways, including feelings of distress, anxiety, panic attacks or sleep disturbance, physical illness, muscular tension, headaches and digestive problems, reduced work performance, loss of self-esteem and feelings of isolation, deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family and friends, a sense of helplessness, hopeless and depression, feeling confused, guilty and ashamed and for some an increased risk of suicide.

While my own experience of being bullied did not make me feel suicidal, for some people bullying has been so detrimental to their mental health that suicide becomes the only way of making it stop.

Some jurisdictions are taking legal measures to recognise the connection between severe bullying and suicide. In 2011, Brodie's Law was introduced as an amendment to the Victorian Crimes Act 1958 which makes serious bullying an offence punishable by a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment. The law was introduced after campaigning by the parents of Brodie Panlock, a 19-year-old who ended her life after enduring ongoing humiliating and intimidating bullying by her co-workers at a café in Hawthorn, Victoria. 

Brodie’s death was a tragic reminder of the serious consequences and impact that bullying in the workplace can have on a person’s mental health. 

Myths and misconceptions

There are a number of myths and misconceptions about bullying from bullies are loners and have no friends to if you ignore it, it will go away to being bullied gives you character and victims of bullying bring it on themselves —  it’s their own fault.

When I was bullied, for a time, I felt it was my fault. Perhaps what my bully was saying — that I was not good enough at my job — was true. And perhaps that I felt so distressed about what was said to me was indeed a sign of my weakness. Furthermore, thinking this way, made me second-guess myself and question my actions. This had a negative effect on my self-esteem and self-efficacy. I lost confidence in what I was capable of and able to achieve. 

In the EAP sessions however and through my clinical supervision, I learned of course that this second-guessing and self-doubt was not healthy, not helpful, and not true.
The truth was: I was good at my job and had a proven track-record but my new boss was bullying me and giving me unreasonable tasks to complete with unrealistic timelines in which to complete them.  

Over the few months I was able to access EAP, I learned that the bullying wasn’t my fault but the fault of the person who was bullying me and the organisation and culture that created and facilitated it. 

If there is a loud and clear message I would like to offer from my bullying experience, it is this:

Bullying is never the fault of the person being bullied.
Longer term impacts

Being bulled took me from the workplace and the nursing workforce. At the time, leaving was the best option for my mental health and wellbeing. However, looking back, it should never have got to that. I now believe that the organisation in which I worked let me down and I became another workforce departure statistic.  That I couldn’t call out my bullying was also a reflection of the organisational workplace culture of the time.  Workplace bullying was played down and people were expected to grin and bear it — buckle up and get on with it.  

It took me a number of years to get over my experience of being bullied. Thankfully, my broad knowledge-base and skill meant I was able to take my career in other directions.  Some years later, I went back to work in similar service settings and took up comparable roles in other organisations.  However, what stays with me is an on-going caution and mistrust of organisational process and culture to truly prevent workplace bullying. 

Responsibilities of employers

Employers have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) to provide and maintain far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health and this includes mental health. There is limited evidence to show interventions after bullying has occurred are effective. Prevention is the key to creating a safe working environment. 

Back when I was bullied, there was less strident emphasis on the prevention of bullying and the importance of mentally safe workplaces. In addition, the workplace culture that allowed bullying to occur was widespread, not just within the workplace where I was employed, but virtually everywhere. Thankfully, things are changing. Today there is renewed attention to  the need for safer and mentally healthy workplaces. 

A word to managers

It can sometimes be difficult to manage an employee without them perceiving it as bullying, even when it is focused solely on their performance. As a manager myself, I’ve been through this a number of times and have supported other managers who have been accused of bullying. It can be a gruelling process. 

We should return to the definition of bullying to reassure ourselves and those we manage how it differs greatly from performance management. 

Bullying is behaviour that is repetitive and singles out a person with the purpose to humiliate, ridicule, undermine and treat less favourably and/or in unreasonable, unrealistic and inappropriate ways. 

Performance management is a process used to support a colleague to improve and develop their workplace practice and performance. It’s not just about an element of a person’s practice and performance requiring structured attention but should be used as an opportunity to support someone to develop skills and knowledge in areas where they are underperforming, relevant to their role. The aims of performance management should be mutually beneficial.

What can supportive bystanders do?

Bullying can affect the entire team. People who witness bullying of other colleagues may also find that their physical, mental and emotional health suffers. Researchers from Sheffield University’s Institute of Work Psychology found that witnesses of workplace bullying experienced an ongoing decline in their wellbeing at work, including depression, anxiety, and general ill health.  

When I was being bullied, I believe others were aware of what was happening. The ridicule and excessive demands would have been evident to others present in meetings and other discussions. However, no one spoke out or spoke to me privately outside those meetings about what they saw and heard.  So why didn’t anybody say anything to me? I think there are a couple of contextual factors. 

  1. The power imbalance. The bully was senior in the organisation. Calling out the bullying risked recrimination and perhaps opened my colleagues to being bullied themselves.

  2. The workplace culture. Our workplace permitted bullying and did not empower my colleagues to raise their voices in dissent against the boss. 

I understand the context that can make it extremely difficult to call out bullying. I still think calling it out can be one of the most powerful ways to stop a workplace bully in their tracks,  prevent workplace bullying from occurring and change the workplace that has all too often swept it under the carpet.
I’ve been a silent bystander too. In a different workplace, I witnessed bullying. I sat by, shocked at what I had heard and seen and struck by an impotence and fear to call it out.  Again, the unreasonable, inappropriate and humiliating behaviour — perpetrated by a bully in a role of authority, power and leadership within the organisation. Some of my colleagues did eventually call it out. I admire their courage. Though I understand what stopped me from doing the same, I still regret that I felt unable to. 

From what we are currently seeing, we still have much work to do, but looking back and comparing the culture in which I was bullied to that which I now see — I am encouraged. Not so much by the behaviour of those in roles of leadership and authority, but by the courage and the voice of those who are speaking out.

Finding a way to speak out is one of the most important things that people can do — whether they are witnessing or experiencing bullying. 

Speak to the person being bullied. 

Tell them what you see, what you hear and ask them how you can help — but don’t just stop there. Find someone you trust in the organisation and tell them about the bullying. If there is nobody you can trust, find someone else to tell, such as a union or other external body.

Make sure you tell the person that what you saw, what you heard was not okay. That what they are experiencing is not acceptable. It might seem obvious to you, but they really need it. 

Changing the culture of bullying in healthcare will take all of our commitment. If you’re not sure how to start, Nurse & Midwife Support can help you talk through some ideas — give them a call on 1800 667 877


I am grateful to the Nurse and Midwife Support Service for the opportunity to write this piece about my own experience of being bullied and how it affected my mental health.  I also hope some of what I write gives both a voice of support to nurses, midwives and others who have bullied like me and a reminder to all of us that bullying like workplace safety – is everyone business.  

About Tessa Moriarty

Photo of Tessa MoriartyTessa 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.

Tessa writes professionally as part of the roles and consultancy work that she does. More recently, she has turned to more creative writing and calls herself a lived experience writer. She believes in the healing capacity of writing for both those who write and read the written word.