“THEY MADE JOKES ABOUT MY WEIGHT.”
Workplace bullying may not involve physical violence, but the effects of cutting words and emotional bullying may be even more damaging than a black eye
Growing up, *Alice Kwek was bullied throughout her years in primary school and secondary school. “I was socially awkward, clumsy, and had untameable frizzy hair. Girls would snigger and call me names when I entered the classroom. I only had a few close friends, and they would pass me tissues under the desk whenever they saw me cry silently at my seat,” she reveals. “I often felt traumatised and hurt, but I was too embarrassed to talk to the teachers or to confide in my parents. I listlessly dragged myself to school every day.”
By the time she graduated, Alice’s confidence had hit ground zero. “I didn’t like myself much anymore. I just wanted to finish school and join the workforce.”
I thought that adults wouldn’t be bullies, the same way that kids were.
But when Alice started her first job, it felt like déjà vu. Alice was subjected to constant yelling and malicious comments from her supervisor. “Some of my colleagues sympathised with me, but none of them dared to step in to stop the shouting,” she recalls. “To cope, I’d suppress my emotions at work, and then go home and cry in bed at night.”
Over time, Alice’s mental health began to decline. “My boss made my days really miserable. She would ignore me at team meetings and when I walked into her room, she would snap, ‘What do you want now?’ – all within earshot of others in the office.
“Another time, she rolled her eyes when she saw me, then snapped, ‘That dress makes you look so big, no wonder you walk so slowly.’ I actually respected her a lot, so her actions really hurt and embarrassed me. I’d end up hiding in the toilet cubicles to cry quietly.”
At 25, Alice was diagnosed with clinical depression. She began taking medication and attending counselling sessions with a psychiatrist. “But I felt that his advice was pointless as it wasn’t working for me. Taking medication also made me feel even more of a failure,” she explains. “So I pushed myself harder and worked longer hours to prove myself,” she says. “The bullying slowed, then eventually, it stopped.”
Alice admits that perhaps the improvement in her work output was what changed things around for her, but adds, “I never knew for sure why my boss altered her attitude towards me. It could have been due to the long hours I was putting in, or maybe, she felt guilty after learning that I became clinically depressed.”
As time went by and the pressures at work started to feel overwhelming, Alice started her search for a better work environment. She found a new job, but her lack of confidence continued to leave her vulnerable to bullying – this time, from her co-workers. “I was constantly subjected to cruel comments about my weight,” she says. “They would pass remarks like, ‘Eww I REALLY wouldn’t eat THAT if I were you,’ or ‘Seriously, why don’t you go to the gym instead of stuffing your face with that lasagne?’
“Sometimes, they excluded me from group lunches. I didn’t want anyone to know that I felt affected by their actions, so I pretended to be busy with work and eat alone at my desk. I was also aware of a handful of my colleagues giving me side glances every time they passed by my desk.”
On her 27th birthday, Alice received shopping vouchers. “I was actually quite pleased, until one of the girls burst out laughing and said, ‘Now you can go change your ugly wardrobe and maybe buy yourself some nice makeup!’ I bit my lip and laughed along, but inside I was hurting so badly.”
One day, Alice tripped and fell during a Zumba class. “I’d started joining my colleagues for Zumba after work in hopes of bonding with them,” she shares. “They were always making fun of my weight and it seemed like a great way to kill two birds with one stone – I could hang out with them while trying to get fit.” The fall left Alice with a dislocated shoulder and a lower back injury which couldn’t seem to heal properly even after four months. “I was in pain a lot, but still clocking in a ton of overtime work in a bid to impress my boss. My mental health went into decline again and I ended up being diagnosed with clinical depression for the second time.”
Alice finally decided to call it quits and put her health first. “With my family’s love and support, I left my job and took a six-month sabbatical, during which I explored holistic therapies and started practicing yoga,” she says. She also got certified as a social worker, and now works at a non-profit organisation, helping the less privileged.
I took a pay cut but I’m much happier now.
“My health has improved tremendously,” Alice shares with a smile.
Alice has learned to stay away from people with a mean streak. “If you’re being bullied, don’t wait till you sleep, fall sick, or sink into depression,” she advises. “I wish I had learned to stand up for myself earlier. I’ve learned that if the ‘teasing’ continues when someone is obviously upset by the behaviour, then that crosses the line into bullying. The reality is that there’ll always be people who can’t seem to help themselves and take a jab at me from time to time. It hurts of course, but now, I know that I can choose to walk away. I have a choice not to subject myself to their poor behaviour.”
WHAT TO DO IF YOU’VE GOT A BULLY BOSS
If you’ve got a boss who’s always making catty comments, or constantly shouting and swearing at you, try talking to her about her behaviour. Give her the benefit of doubt and start by assuming that she doesn’t realise what she’s doing. Speak calmly and explain your misgivings in a collected manner. Don’t accuse her, just explain why the actions have to stop.
“A smart boss will change her attitude if she wants you to stay,” advises Dr Helen Chen, a senior consultant psychiatrist. “If you do nothing, you’re sending the message that it’s okay for her to act this way. You can also change how you react. Step away the next time her voice rises – especially if you’re getting emotional too. If she continues to be unreasonable, document details of any bullying incidents, and talk to your HR or someone higher up for help. Consider transferring to another role in the company. Depending on the circumstances, it may be time to resign and find someplace new.”