Bullying and harassment

If you work in education, your workplace probably has a bullying policy for pupils. But are staff equally protected? We explain how to recognise bullying and harassment at work, and how to respond if they’re making your life difficult.

Guides / 11 mins read

What's in this guide:

Does the behaviour of someone at work make you feel humiliated, intimidated, frightened or extremely uncomfortable? If so, it could be a case of workplace bullying.

Bullying and harassment can take place in almost any workplace, but education staff are particularly at risk. In a survey carried out by the trade union NASUWT in 2019, four out of every five teachers said they had experienced bullying at work.

This high figure reflects that bullying of education staff can come from a range of sources. Seventy per cent of cases involve a headteacher or senior leader, but others are bullied by peers, parents or pupils. ‘Upward bullying’, where senior staff are bullied by junior colleagues, can also be an issue.

Bullying is especially prevalent in education because the work is uniquely high-pressured. The never-ending cycle of high-stakes inspections and test results, combined with continual change, under-resourcing and crisis situations, can create an atmosphere of stress and blame where bullying becomes commonplace.

The good news is that the different types of workplace bullying – and their impact on mental and physical health – are becoming increasingly well understood. A growing number of education organisations are making efforts to create a workplace environment where people feel comfortable discussing concerns so they don’t fester and lead to bullying. Many are taking positive measures to protect staff by introducing anti-bullying policies, creating employee support schemes or holding training sessions to raise awareness. The law also gives you wide-ranging protection against bullying and harassment at work.

 

What are workplace bullying and harassment?

According to workplace experts Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service):

Bullying is behaviour from a person or group that's unwanted and makes someone feel uncomfortable.

Harassment is when bullying or unwanted behaviour is related to any of the following (known as 'protected characteristics' under the Equality Act 2010):

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • pregnancy and maternity [which have special protections in law]
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation 

Workplace bullying may be verbal, physical or psychological. It can happen face to face or online. It might be a one-off incident but is more often a repeated pattern of behaviour. It is classed as harassment if it violates a person’s dignity or creates a hostile environment for them – whether the perpetrator intends this or not.

Examples in education settings include:

  • Your headteacher repeatedly subjects you to unnecessary unannounced observations and criticises your teaching methods unfairly.
  • Your head of department assigns you an unreasonably heavy workload compared to that of your colleagues.
  • Your line-manager unjustly overlooks you for promotion or training opportunities.
  • Your senior leadership team redesign your job, giving you more than your fair share of challenging classes and unpleasant classrooms, or forcing you to teach outside your area of expertise.
  • A co-worker touches you inappropriately in the staffroom.
  • Colleagues repeatedly exclude you from social events.
  • Your assistant frequently undermines you in front of parents.
  • The caretaker calls you a homophobic nickname.
  • A governor uses racist or sexist language about you in meetings.
  • A parent spreads false rumours about you on social media.
  • A student threatens you or physically attacks you.
  • A group of pupils make up offensive jokes, cartoons or graffiti about you.

 

I suffered a really difficult time in my last school. I didn’t feel hugely supported at work, experienced daily injustice and felt very unhappy. I had been teaching at the school for 22 years, however my last three years there were really tough. I was bullied and indiscriminately placed on a support plan which undermined my confidence.
Helen, primary school teacher

The bullying might not necessarily take place at your school or college. If you are targeted during a residential trip, staff training day or work Christmas party, it’s still classed as workplace bullying.

Are you sure? 
Before making an accusation, you must be certain that the other person’s behaviour is actually bullying or harassment. Constructive criticism and performance measurement procedures are part of working life. Changes to your role, or suggestions for altering your working practice, may be unwelcome but they are not bullying if they are reasonable and given fairly. If in doubt, chat to your union rep or a trusted colleague.

 

Workplace bullying and the law

There’s no single UK law covering workplace bullying, but your employer has a duty to tackle discrimination and protect your health, safety and wellbeing (including mental wellbeing) at work. This is enshrined in several pieces of legislation:

  • The Equality Act 2010 provides protection against racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic and ableist behaviour and other types of discrimination that have ‘the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’ in relation to ‘protected characteristics’ (see above). This Act also protects workers against pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
  • The Employment Rights Act 1996 allows workers to claim unfair dismissal if they are forced to leave their job because of their employer’s actions (e.g. discriminatory practice) or inactions (e.g. failure to deal with a complaint).
  • Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers must provide a safe and healthy working environment. This includes protection from bullying and harassment.
  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to assess risks to employees’ safety and health (including mental health) and take measures to eliminate or reduce these risks as far as
  • Other legislation that may be relevant includes the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (which defines stress as a disability), Protection from Harassment Act 1998, Malicious Communications Act 1988 and Computer Misuse Act 1990.

Unfortunately, legal protections don’t apply if you’re self-employed (a visiting music teacher or sports instructor, for example) or doing voluntary work.

Because of the complex legal situation, it’s helpful to have expert support to deal with bullying or harassment at work. You can get legal advice from:

  • a trade union (if you’re a member)
  • your workplace employee assistance scheme (if there is one)
  • an employment lawyer (for a fee)
  • the Mind legal line (for guidance on mental health-related law) on 0300 466 6463

… and advice on workplace issues, and how they affect your mental health or wellbeing, from:

Workplace harassment can sometimes be a serious criminal offence. If you are physically or sexually assaulted, raped, threatened physically, subjected to racial or homophobic hate crime, or your personal safety is threatened in any way while at work, consider taking the matter to the police.

 

How bullying and harassment can affect your health and wellbeing

Harassment and bullying can have a damaging impact on your mental health and, consequently, on your performance at work. Targets of workplace bullying often report low self-esteem, isolation, depression or anxiety. Some find their physical health suffers as they struggle with insomnia or self-medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs. The mental pressure of continued bullying can also manifest in physical symptoms, such as nausea, headaches, high blood pressure, skin rashes or an irritable bowel.

I was being bullied at work. It got so bad I started self-harming. It really affected my mental health. I ended up in a very dark place and took two overdoses.
Anna, teacher at a school for children with special needs

Find someone you can turn to for moral support – perhaps a close friend, family member or colleague who can help you make sense of what’s happening and offer you the kindness and support you need.

If the stress and anxiety of the situation are making it difficult for you to work effectively, see your GP. They may be able to help by referring you to talking therapies or community services, signing you off work for a while, or prescribing medication – if that’s an appropriate treatment and one you feel comfortable with.

You can also call the Education Support helpline on 08000 562 561. It’s completely confidential and open round the clock, no matter the issue.

 

How to deal with a bullying incident

When you’re being bullied, call out the unwanted behaviour there and then if possible. Try saying something like: “Please don’t touch me like that” or “Please don’t use that word when you talk to me”.

Just as when you deal with children, focus on the behaviour and not the person. Try not to respond emotionally by losing your temper or crying. Instead stay calm (even if you don’t feel it inside), be assertive but not aggressive, and stick to the facts. Avoid retaliating or you could be open to accusations of bullying yourself.

If the bullying persists, consider having a one-to-one chat with the perpetrator, if you feel safe to do so. This will give you an opportunity to explain what you don’t like about their behaviour and how it affects you. They may be unaware of the impact of their words or actions.

Read your organisation’s policy document on bullying in the workplace (if there is one) and explain to the perpetrator how your experiences fit with the definition of bullying in the policy. Make clear that you will take formal action if the situation doesn’t change.

Resolving the matter without going though formal procedures is often preferable. Doing this alone can be daunting, so you might want support from your union rep or mentor (if you have one), or from a trusted colleague or manager. You could even ask them to talk to the bully on your behalf if you don’t feel able to.



Taking formal action against workplace harassment 

What if you don’t have the confidence to confront your bully? Or you do, but the harassment doesn’t stop? Or the bullying is too serious to be dealt with informally? The next step is formal action – also called ‘raising a grievance’. Most employers have a written policy on how to do this, so read it carefully and follow the guidance given.

If you’re considering formal action, it’s useful to keep a diary of your experiences beforehand. Collect evidence of the bullying too if you can – screenshots, notes, emails and recordings can all back up your accusations. If there are witnesses to the bullying, ask if they would be willing to support you.

If you are not satisfied with the outcome of your formal complaint, or the harassment continues, you could take legal action against your employer at an employment tribunal. Some workers have great success overturning workplace injustices – and being financially compensated – through the tribunal process. Bear in mind, though, that tribunals can be gruelling and stressful. You must stick to strict protocols and timeframes, and not every case is successful. You must inform Acas if you are considering going down this route, and it’s best to get support from your union (if you belong to one).

If you don’t get the outcome you were hoping for by taking formal action, and you can’t face an employment tribunal, there’s always the option of changing something about your working life. Working with a different age group or adjusting your hours might reduce your contact with the bully. Or you may feel you’d be happier in a different workplace or even a different career.

 

Life after bullying

Being bullied or harassed at work is an incredibly stressful and overwhelming experience. Even when the situation is resolved, feelings of self-doubt and anxiety can linger.

Always remember that you are not to blame. Bullying is an abuse of power – whether that power is physical, psychological, social, societal or organisational. It is never the victim’s fault.

It can take time to recover from such a traumatic experience, so take good care of yourself. Eat well, exercise regularly and surround yourself with people who give you emotional support and validation. Counselling can also be beneficial, helping you move on mentally and emotionally. If you have ongoing mental health issues, such as panic attacks, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, visit your GP to discuss the best treatment options.

I had counselling through Education Support… The helpline was amazing. You guys were my light in a very dark tunnel.
Anna, teacher at a school for children with special needs

While some bullying victims feel relieved to return to normal in their role or workplace, others find they can only experience ‘closure’ by moving to a new job, new area or new type of work. Whichever path you choose, know that you will be stronger and wiser and that many other people you meet in your education career will share similar experiences.

I spoke to the Education Support helpline after I finished at the school as I was still feeling very frustrated and upset. I felt I needed to talk to someone about it. The helpline was just really good at listening. Teaching has been my life and what happened had really affected my health. As time goes on my anxiety levels have decreased. I’ve got targets and things to aim for in my new life as a supply teacher. Now I’m appreciated again. The helpline was really supportive and helped me with my feelings and moving on. I felt emotionally burdened and they just got to the nub of it. I’m gradually building my confidence again.
Helen, primary school teacher

Sources of support

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