I didn't realise I was being bullied

stress mental health bullying

I didn’t realise I was being bullied until I was forced to choose between my job and my health.

I loved my job in recruitment. But when the market crashed, the multinationals I worked with froze their headcounts and I went from having loads to do to nothing.

I was committed to my speciality – I’d even dabbled with the idea of doing a business degree in recruitment. And I had great relationships with my colleagues and clients. So when the company offered to move me to a different department where I’d stand a chance of hitting my targets, I leapt at the chance.

Things didn’t start out quite how I’d hoped in the new team. Back on my old floor, people were welcoming and sociable – we worked hard, but we were always planning lunches and evenings out together. In this new environment, it was clear I wasn’t ‘one of them’. The job wasn’t as interesting either, but I just got on with it. 

As time went on, the vibe in my corner of the office was one of the catalysts for a panic attack I suffered while sat at my desk. I’d never had one before and my first thought was that I was having a heart attack. One minute I was opening an email; the next I was sweating, unable to breathe or see straight. I’d never realised that it could be so physical. 

A trip to the doctor later and I came away with a diagnosis of severe depression and a sick note for a short absence of leave. Part of me thought time off was a bit unnecessary and that probably came across in my attitude when I checked in with work. They really pushed me to get back to the job, so after just a couple of days I went to the office.

I had a panic attack in the car park and another when I walked through the door. That’s when I started to consider that I really needed time off to get better. The news wasn’t well received. The office wasn’t the sort where you’d ever really take off more than one week’s holiday at a time, so being signed off sick for a month was a bit of a taboo.

Back home, I started reading up on depression and anxiety, wanting to understand it all better. One of the things that kept coming out of the books was the importance of talking. So when I next checked in with my manager, I suggested that when I came in for a meeting, the team step out of the office and take the opportunity to ask me questions about anything they wanted to know around what was going on. I get that mental health can be difficult for people to understand, and also that someone taking leave and creating a temporary gap in a team can prove challenging. Though addressing that openly would have been difficult for me, I thought it would be a good thing to do. But I was told it wouldn’t be necessary and when I returned from my absence, I was given the cold shoulder.

Conversations went on around me about team lunches and nights out that it was clear I wasn’t invited to. The open plan set-up meant that more than once I saw emails being exchanged about me between colleagues. Considering how open I’d wanted to try to be, it felt like a real kick, and only served to compound how terrible I was already feeling. The old me would have called out anyone behaving like this, but the illness made me question whether I was imagining it all, or even if I was so worthless, I deserved this treatment. 

The company half-heartedly offered to provide therapy, but it was made clear that anything I disclosed in these sessions would be made available to HR. The way I was dealt with made me feel that I was completely replaceable and that there was very little concern for my wellbeing.

Everything became so much worse when a friend I hadn’t spoken to in a while got in touch, wanting to know how I was. She’d previously been dating a guy who worked in my office. I thought it had ended because he’d been openly sharing news about moving in with a new girlfriend. But in this email, my friend confessed that she thought he might be about to pop the question. There was no way I could let her think that she was about to become engaged. I had to tell her the truth. 

When my colleague found out how my friend had discovered his deceit, he instigated a lot of bad talk about me around the office. The behaviour in my team escalated. One day I came in to find my desk had been moved into a corner; some of my personal bits and pieces like stationary and my lunch had gone missing, and the rest of my belongings were just strewn everywhere. It was a light bulb moment: I wouldn’t get better in this environment; it was a choice between my health and my job, and despite feeling so low, I knew deep down I deserved better than this. I resigned. There was no goodbye and no leaving card.

Only in hindsight did I apply the term bullying to what happened to me – before that it felt like too strong a label. I guess when you’re at school and find people talking about you behind your back, it takes someone to punch you in the face for you to call it bullying. But whether it’s the playground or the office, when people are making your life so difficult that you simply can’t go back to that place, that’s exactly what it is. 

After taking off time to properly recover, I began to explore various avenues. I dabbled once more with recruitment but the high-pressure environment didn’t feel right for me any more. I loved volunteering as a teaching assistant; I even did a stint as a social media intern for a marketing comms company. I paid the bills by working as a freelance copywriter, and went on to win a place at university – which I chose to defer when I fell pregnant with my first child. I’m on maternity leave now and I often find myself missing an office, having colleagues and other people around to take turns at making tea. At some point in the future I’ll restart my education. There are always options; you just have to take each day as it comes.