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Bullying at work made her sick, but legal remedies are few

Something happened at Jane Soderstrom's last job.

It changed her. She's sure of that.

She remembers how it felt the last time a co-worker sat in a meeting and openly berated her. In two years, she'd never gotten used to it: the dirty looks, being ignored, hearing her co-workers gossip about her within earshot.

She didn't have a name for her problem until she searched the Web for the words "work" and "bully." Now she realizes it's everywhere.

"It was news to me that it was a 'Something,' " said Soderstrom, 50.

About 37 percent of the U.S. workforce report being bullied on the job, according to a 2007 survey conducted by Zogby International and Workplace Bullying Institute. Another 12 percent say they've witnessed it.

Now, experts worry the difficult job market is exacerbating the problem, giving managers more license to mistreat and leaving timid employees more tolerant of the abuse.

"Employees are told, 'Sit down, hold on, shut up,' " said Gary Namie, a psychologist and co-founder of Workplace Bullying Institute.

By Namie's description, the workplace bully slings insults to publicly humiliate, seeks to intimidate or threaten in verbal or non-verbal ways, and intentionally interferes in others' work in "a laser-focused systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction."

For the target, the result can be devastating — physically, emotionally and professionally. Forty-five percent suffer stress-related health problems, according to the WBI study. Many lose their jobs when they complain, though 40 percent never tell their employer.

Soderstrom, a registered nurse who worked two years at BayCare in a home health care office before going on medical leave March 30, said what she endured at work ended up affecting every part of her life, eventually snuffing out her passion for nursing, not to mention her ability to get out of bed each day.

After she finally went beyond human resources and filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, records show, her bully was demoted.

Now, she wonders whether the job was worth the toll it has taken on her mental health.

She's not alone. Her family wonders the same.

"I never realized that it would bring her to the place that it's brought her," husband Rob Soderstrom said, his voice suddenly cracking before he apologized for his tears.

Taken individually, workplace bullying offenses often amount to peevish complaints.

Eye rolling. Loud sighs. Cliquishness. Intentional exclusion from office-related communication.

Such transgressions sound minor and, at the beginning, may force an employee to wonder whether the offenses are real or imagined, let alone serious enough to warrant a human resources complaint.

So, you work with a jerk, the internal voice says: Get over it!

But when the situation escalates, it can lead to a point of serious personal crisis.

Soderstrom said she gained 90 pounds in two years. She went from someone who loved — and took pride — in her career, to someone who got nauseous just driving to work, someone whose absenteeism rose to the point of getting a reprimand.

When she recently asked a doctor to submit an application for her short-term disability, his diagnosis sounded fitting for someone who had gone through war: Anxiety disorder, including features of post-traumatic stress disorder. Major depression episode. Somatic symptoms. Insomnia. Headaches, shakes, tremors, dizziness.

"I am a walking ghost of who I was," she said.

Despite the toll, legal options are limited. Nothing about workplace bullying rises to the level of illegality, unless the victim can prove he or she was targeted for a reason protected under law — race, gender, religion, disability or whistleblowing.

Since 2003, 16 states have introduced legislation addressing anti-bullying concerns, though none successfully. Florida isn't one.

Cynthia Sass, a labor and employment attorney in Tampa, said her firm frequently hears bullying complaints. Her advice: look for another job.

It's a hard situation for an employee to be in, Sass said. "Because if it's not illegal and they complain, they're probably going to be out the door."

Soderstrom hasn't worked for BayCare since March. She has been on unpaid family medical leave, and most recently, unpaid personal leave.

BayCare wouldn't comment specifically on Soderstrom's situation, but spokeswoman Stephanie Sampiere sent the following statement: "We take these types of allegations seriously. We have policies in place to address any concerns voiced by team members, and we thoroughly, immediately and confidentially investigate all allegations without retaliation of a report made in 'good faith.' "

Curious about the impact of the economy on instances of workplace bullying, the WBI recently conducted an unscientific survey on its Web site.

Out of 454 respondents — 99 percent of whom said they'd been bullied or witnessed it — 27.5 percent said the bullying had gotten worse since September 2008, the point at which there was widespread recognition of a global economic crisis.

The uptick didn't surprise Sass.

"I think people are probably putting up with more than they would," she said, "and they're not complaining because they're scared they're going to be retaliated against."

Karen Buesing is a labor and employment law attorney with Akerman Senterfitt LLC in Tampa that specializes in corporate defense. She challenges the notion that employees are more likely to be victims of bullying in the current economic climate.

"I think over the past decade, employers have been much more concerned and conscientious about what goes on in the workplace," Buesing said.

With increasing budgetary concerns, she said, corporations facing cutbacks are less likely to tolerate the antics of an employee who is perceived to be a bully: "There are too many great people out there who are not abusive."

According to WBI's research, there is a bottom line effect for companies that tolerate bullying: Productivity decreases, absenteeism increases and health care and insurance expenses go up.

Soderstrom is in counseling and receives psychiatric care.

After months of struggling to leave the house, to do dishes, to cook, she's slowly trying to reclaim the things that once brought her joy — her relationship with her grandchildren, her crafts, her faith. She has a hunch she may never reclaim the career that once defined her sense of self. And a lawyer recently told her she has no legal recourse.

"The only thing I can do," she said, "is maybe call some social awareness to it."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to the report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

>> FAQs on bullying

What is bullying?

Mistreatment severe enough to compromise a targeted worker's health, jeopardize her or his job and career, and strain the family that suffers, too. It has nothing to do with work itself but is driven by the bully's personal agenda.

Who is bullied?

Unlike in the school yard, targets of workplace bullying aren't typically weak or loners. They are often veteran employees who are skilled, independent and who may pose a perceived threat to the bully because of that experience. Also, they tend to be empathetic, ethical and willing to blow the whistle when they observe unethical behavior.

How common is it?

In a 2007 survey, 54 million Americans, or 37 percent, reported being bullied at work.

What are some signs of bullying?

You feel like throwing up the night before work. Your family demands you stop obsessing about work. Your health declines. Your favorite activities are no longer fun. Others at work have been told to stop socializing with you. Bosses and human resources officials agree your tormenter is a jerk, but say there's nothing they can do. Your evaluations begin to change for the worse.

Source: Workplace Bullying Institute, www.workplacebullying.org

Bullying at work made her sick, but legal remedies are few 07/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 25, 2009 5:31am]
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