Helen Christina, a working mum with a high flying career, thought she had it all, but her world came crashing down when a new boss was installed and began a campaign of bullying. She talks to Mandy Garner about her book, Bully Boss.
It is a sign of the legacy of bullying at work that even months after leaving her job and writing a book about her experiences Helen Christina feels worried about making her identity known. "Even now there is the legacy of the bullying I experienced," she says. She speaks of "crumple buttons", things that trigger off memories of the experience and cause her a slight shudder. She adds that one result of her experience, which she catalogues in detail in her book, Bully Boss, is that she now works for herself. "I do not trust, which is probably totally unfair, employers or the workplace." She adds: "I never want to go back to a situation like that again."
Helen Christina was a high flying career woman, a senior director. She was also a working mother with two children when, following a restructuring exercise at work, she was bequeathed a new boss with a huge ego and a completely negative attitude towards working mothers. From the outset, he questioned her work arrangements – she had an agreement to work from home two days a week to save on a commute time of two to three hours. On the days she did work in the office, she worked through every break. One of her boss’s first questions to her concerned her working routine – "How can working from home be good for business," he asked. On some of the days that she was working from home she had been doing the school run. He said: "Children are a distraction to this business and so are staff that are spending their time undertaking school runs." This was despite the fact that Helen Christina had been getting her work done and was getting positive feedback from clients. Her working from home arrangement was terminated and a campaign of intimidation and contempt began.
Facing unremitting criticism from her boss, she tried to counter this by working later and later and giving in to unreasonable demands. For example, she says she would get back from work on occasions at 1 or 2 am. She catalogues how her boss would arrange meetings and say he would confirm them, then ring two hours after the meeting was due to take place and demand she come out at 8pm at night to talk him through some aspect of work. She says now that she is "a bit embarrassed" that she did not see at the time the impact this was having on her family.
She adds that her friends questioned why she was not quicker to fight back and assert herself against her new boss. She says it is harder to do so when you are in the situation. "I was so gob smacked at how he was behaving," she says. "I didn’t realise that when you give respect you do not necessarily get it back."
She thinks the current economic uncertainty will lead to more bullying. "I am finding that the amount of emails I have been getting recently shows that there are more job losses around and more tension. There is much more stress in the workplace now and huge expectations on people. Everything is much more performance related. It was very different 20 years ago."
All this creates the perfect breeding ground for bullying. And working mums, says Helen Christina, are more vulnerable than most. They may have flexible arrangements which have been agreed with their company after they return from maternity leave. If they are being bullied, she says, they may feel trapped and feel they have to endure the situation. Added to this is the long hours culture which is very difficult, if not impossible, for working mothers to sustain. "They may well fear that there will not be other jobs open to them on a flexible basis, particularly if they are at managerial level," says Helen Christina. "So they might feel they have to hold on and put up with the rubbish. The result is that their confidence is undermined."
Going back to a different world
She is firmly of the opinion that companies need to do more to support working mums going back into the workforce. "When you have a baby your confidence is lowered anyway. You are returning to a very different world at work," she says. "I really believe that women need more support in the transition back to work and in reintegration. Women are often going back to a lower status role and there are the feelings that go with that demotion to deal with. Companies tend not to consider that having a baby can be tough and going back and having to juggle with everything is a hard transition to make yet there is no recognition of this in some companies. They expect you to take up where you left off."
Helen Christina says that, apart from needing the money associated with working, she "wanted to work". "I could not see myself as being a mother full time, but I realise now that I was excessive. I’m much more relaxed now and a 100% better mother."
Since writing the book, she has been doing training and mentoring work on issues like bullying in the workplace and confidence building and has been advising people through her website – indeed her book has a lengthy section at the back with advice of how to deal with bully bosses. She is now writing a second book, this time on motherhood. She says the experience of being bullied has had one positive outcome – to make her appreciate her family more. Her children, now 15 and 12, used to complain that she always had her nose in a computer and that she often wouldn’t listen to what they were saying.
Looking back now, she says she should have walked away sooner. "The damage was too much," she says. She was on sick leave for a while with stress-related illness. "Workplace stress is not taken seriously enough," she says. "It was like I had been hit by a train. It takes a few years to get back to the level of confidence you had before. You start to analyse and doubt yourself after a while and you feel lonely and isolated, but analysing yourself is the worst thing you can do. I would now say that you need to listen to your friends and family and have confidence in yourself."
However, she is glad that she pursued her case to a grievance. The process, which dragged on for some time because her human resources director was so much in hoc to the senior management team "It was an old boy’s network," says Helen Christina], resulted in her eventually getting a mealy-mouthed acknowledgement of "poor communication" with her boss and no mention of bullying. However, she felt she needed to go through it to put the bullying on the record or she would have always have had a sense of ‘what if’. "I just wanted someone to listen to me about what was going on. After it was over I felt that I could at last exhale," she says. She did not want to take it to tribunal as this would just have prolonged her stress. She would have had to call witnesses and she says it is rare that people come forward when they feel their jobs might be under threat. Plus much of the bullying went on behind closed doors. "I felt I had a really strong case, but I lacked confidence and felt worn down. I just wanted to draw a line under it and move on. I have no regrets," she says.
She hopes the book is seen as a positive contribution to discussions around workplace bullying. "It is not a dark story and I am pretty proud of it," she says. "It has given me a sense of release. It has been very cathartic."