Anxiety and Depression Over Workplace Treatment

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about anxiety and depression caused by workplace conflict where an employee has felt bullied and ostracized for two years.

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Question:
A few years back a coworker shared with me her displeasure at finding out a new person was making more money than her….She found out by opening the new persons pay There was no reasoning with her and I listened to her rants daily. I finally spoke with a subordinate. Well it turns out I was made the scapegoat.

The offending co worker was treated with the highest regard and I was bullied and ostracized. For over 2 years I have worked in this atmosphere in constant anxiety because I could not afford to leave my job. I now suffer from depression and major anxiety, a kind of PTSD. Do I have any recourse?

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Answer:

Hello and thank you for sharing your concerns. It appears that your primary question is whether or not you have civil or legal claims against your employer for the negative work environment and the depression and anxiety you feel. I’m sorry, but we aren’t attorneys and you would need to speak to an attorney who understands employment law related to a situation like that.

However, I can give you a lay person’s opinion, based on what I have seen in similar cases. I think you would need to provide a lot of proof that the company itself (not just individual employees or managers) conspired to create a depression-inducing work environment for you. You don’t indicate that you think this is related to a bias about your age, gender, ethnicity, race or religion, so it wouldn’t be an EEO issue.

You also don’t say what was done to ostracize and bully you—those words means many different things to different people, so you would need to be very clear about what happened, when it happened and who did what. Another big issue is what you did to try to get the bad behavior stopped. If you can show you complained to the highest levels, giving as much proof of the harmful behavior as possible (and the harmful results to you) and you can also show you were either blamed and treated more negatively or that you received no response, an attorney may think there is a basis for some kind of civil action. Whether it would be worth the money to try is something you would have to consider.

I don’t want to completely discourage you about it, but there has to be more than an allegation—there has to be proof. Usually you also need to show that you asked someone in the company—your managers, higher levels, the owners of the company, if it’s a small business, HR or others—to assist you. Without that, the executives or owners or the company would say that they didn’t know about it or didn’t know it had continued.

It is also usually necessary to show some loss or permanent harm to you. For example, if you were refused a promotion that was promised or in a contract, that would be a loss. If you spent money for counseling or psychiatrists for anxiety or depression, that could be proof of harm. If you can show medical or other records related to anxiety or depression, that would also be valuable information.

If you are asking about Workmen’s Compensation or some other employment benefit for the anxiety you have felt over the way you have been treated, the same proof will be required. You can contact the Department of Labor in your state to find out further information.

When you wrote about your work history you said that you spoke to a subordinate about the complaints by a coworker who looked at another employee’s paycheck. I’m wondering if you meant to write that you told a supervisor. That would be more likely. It doesn’t do any good to tell you this now, I know, but this can point out to others the problems with listening to coworkers who have bad attitudes. The coworker who was happy to rant to you did nothing to keep you from being blamed for wrongdoing. What a shame! And, the situation was apparently unclear enough that people chose to believe the coworker and others instead of you. It sounds as though you did not have strong supporters going into that situation.

If you haven’t done so, consider talking to your direct supervisor about this matter, either now or at your next performance review. If you can show that your work has been good, that you have been a cooperative employee and a good team member when you were allowed to be, perhaps you can use that to say that you would appreciate it if your supervisor could help you figure out how to respond to some of the problems you’ve had. It’s been two years since the initial matter happened, so your supervisor may be surprised to find out that your coworkers are still creating problems for you.

For all of this situation, the size of the company is an important factor. Large companies have HR sections and layers of bosses, so that at some point you can usually find someone to whom you can direct a request for an interview about your concerns. It isn’t likely that hundreds and hundreds of people would be involved over something that happened two years ago, which was apparently not serious enough for you to be fired over it.

If your company is small or very small, there may be less people available to give you a fair hearing about what you see as bullying and ostracizing and the anxiety and depression that has caused.

I realize it isn’t easy to get a new job, especially if you live in a non-urban area. But, the reality is that you are not obligated to stay working in a place where you are suffering emotional damage. You can leave at any time and not endure it anymore. That sounds to me like your best option if nothing else has helped over the course of two years and you feel you can’t continue.

Work is challenging enough without feeling beat-down all the time. However, often there are windows of opportunity to improvement if you are a good employee, valuable to the company, focused on your work and pleasant to those who don’t seem to be causing you problems. If you can get away from the problems during breaks or if you have even one or two good working relationships, maybe those will be enough to help you until you can find a better place to be or an ally there to help you find a lasting solution.

If you don’t think you can get anything accomplished at work, you may have to overcome your anxiety about leaving and, as Dr. Gorden says, “vote with your feet” and leave that job. If it’s as bad as you describe, you could surely find something better.

I regret that this is happening to you and wish I could be there to see the exact situation and give you more specific advice. Perhaps you can find someone local you trust and respect, who knows you and your situation or who at least knows of the place where you work. Lay out all of your information and get their thoughts about it before you go further.

Best wishes to you in whatever you decide to do. If you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know what happens. The information might be very helpful to others in similar situations.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors