Michael, a Ph.D., enjoyed his work at the defense industry firm that hired him six years ago – until two years ago, that is, when a new boss was appointed over him, turning his world upside down.
During his new manager's first week on the job, Michael showed her a new project he had initiated, which she promptly told him to abandon. A month later, he discovered that the project was still alive – but in another department and under her sponsorship. When he inquired about it, she reprimanded him, accusing him of working for his own personal benefit and not for the good of the organization.
Praised for his work until then, Michael was now pushed aside and was no longer getting credit for his accomplishments. The approval he had received to attend a professional conference abroad was rescinded without any reason offered. At a team meeting, his boss silenced him before he could utter a word.
Michael suddenly experienced chest pains and felt he was choking. He thought he was having a heart attack. After rushing to the hospital, he was told by the doctor that it was an anxiety attack. A while later, after talking to his family and reading up on the subject, Michael realized he was a victim of psychological abuse at the workplace.
Fully 54.4% of workers regarded themselves as having been subjected to harassment in the workplace in 2011, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Using a narrower definition of mental abuse in the workplace, Eitan Meiri, an organizational and occupational psychologist, estimates that one in every four employees in Israel is victimized.
"Public awareness of emotional abuse within the family is on the rise, but in the workplace the situation is quite different," says Meiri, who has written a book on the subject. "The phenomenon is widespread but hushed and hidden away. Everyone involved, from the CEO to the managers and down to the last worker, prefers to ignore it and keep quiet – each one for his own reasons."
Meiri took notice of the phenomenon seven years ago, after reading about the widow of a white collar worker in the United States who committed suicide after repeated bullying. His widow was awarded several million dollars in compensation by a court.
"I began investigating the subject and interviewing people, and understood that this is something that occurs in countless workplaces, large and small," he says. "The stories point to brutal behavior and abnormal conduct. It turns out that Israel has quite a few bosses from hell."
One of the problems is the conspiracy of silence surrounding worker abuse. "The employee doesn't want to be seen as a complainer," says Meiri. "He feels embarrassed and afraid of social rejection. He thinks he can solve his problems on his own and doesn't want to make mountains out of molehills."
But once major abuse sets in, Meiri says, like being yelled at in front of colleague or moved to a windowless room, the victim has already lost the ability to defend himself. He simply can't imagine that anyone in a position of power would sabotage his work or how low his abuser has sunk.
"In many cases, the victim identifies with the abuser, which is part of the psychological survival mechanism," says Meiri. "In 95% of cases, the people around are aware of the maltreatment but most keep quiet or even support the abuser," he says. "The average coworkers who witnesses psychological terror directed at another worker won't respond and won't extend the victim any assistance."
He says there are several reasons: The witness is afraid to become a target of abuse himself; he feels as long as the abuser has someone else to pick on everyone else is safe; he convinces himself that the victim bears a certain measure of blame or believes everyone should mind his or her business.
Can anyone become a victim?
"Victimized workers share at least some of the following traits: He is honest, dedicated, diligent, well-liked, tries to please others, believes others are good and fair, has a high ability to cope and tends not to respond assertively to aggression, and has difficulty setting limits – he has a hard time saying 'no,' 'not now' or 'that's enough.'"
The abuser, says Meiri, is different: Intelligent, charming and charismatic. "He can be a top-rate manipulator and a wiz at internal politics, in identifying power centers and connecting with them. He's insensitive to hardships of others while appearing to empathize. He's a control freak and knows no limits: He will go into the victim's computer, poke around in his desk drawers and won't hesitate to spy on him or invade his privacy. He is egocentric. He is vindictive, violent and acts in a vicious and even criminal manner. Most abusers demonstrate aggression to cover their insecurity."
What does the victim need to do to get out of this situation?
"Avoid common mistakes made by victims to stop this curse. Sometimes the victim starts believing that that's how it is in the working world and that there's nothing to do, which obviously keeps him from fighting back. Attempts by the victim to satisfy the abuser by putting in more effort and exercising more restraint usually don't help either."
If so, what can he actually do?
"When someone starts speaking to you abusively, like in a derogatory manner or by raising his voice, tell him quietly: 'I am interested in hearing what you have to say, but not like this.' It's important to set limits – and if the victim doesn’t, the abuser will, according to his own warped standards. Communicate assertively to convey the message: 'I respect you and your authority, but I demand that you respect my rights, my dignity, and my space to the same extent.'"
And what if this doesn't help?
"Sometimes the right thing is to disconnect, to resign. True, this isn't simple, because not everyone can afford to lose his job and livelihood, but consideration should be given to physical and mental health damage caused by ongoing abuse from the boss. The courts recognize resignation due to mental abuse as a tangible deterioration in work conditions and can award severance pay to the departing worker – but it isn't easy to prove in a trial. Therefore it is important to gather evidence by keeping a list of incidents and recording the abuser."
The law doesn't protect victims
Israel has an extensive system of labor laws dealing with a broad range of topics. But there is no legislation on acceptable workplace conduct or on psychological abuse, harassment or degrading treatment of the worker and the rights of workers suffering abuse, says attorney Eyal Sternberg, an expert on the subject.
"The law provides no relief, either directly or indirectly, for emotional abuse in the workplace, even though the worker bears the scars for many years, and often throughout his life," says Sternberg. He suggests Israel adopt legislation protecting workers from abusive behavior like the Scandinavian countries have done. "When there is such a high rate of workers suffering from abuse in the workplace at one level or another, the time has come for legislation with teeth to begin reining in the phenomenon," he says.
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