'Bullying made me feel suicidal'

November 5, 2004

A once fulfilled academic tells of the boss who has made his life a nightmare

I sit here in my office in a dismal basement, alone, peering out of the window at the blank wall a metre away. I feel totally worthless; my career has been destroyed; my personal life is devastated; I can summon no energy to do anything.

I find myself sobbing. I don't want to go on with life. I can't stand the bullying any longer. How did I get to this point?

I have been an academic for 20 years, remaining single, as I was married to the job. Initially it was wonderful: I was respected, took part in my department's decision-making and was a member of faculty board and senate.

I served on prestigious national committees and influential bodies and was shortlisted for head of department posts at top UK universities.

Then everything changed.

Several years ago restructuring brought a new head to my department. We did not hit it off.

At first, things were not too bad, but my unwillingness to take the head of department's word as infallible worsened our relationship. Nevertheless, I worked hard and received a bonus for my efforts.

Then my head of department asked me to take a new post - I refused as I considered it to be a demotion. The result was trumped-up disciplinary charges. I was publicly ejected from the university and my colleagues were told I was not to be allowed back.

The subsequent disciplinary hearing produced no evidence against me and I was cleared. I thought that would be the end of the matter. But the bullying had only just begun.

I was relocated to an office in the basement of a remote building and my key to the previous building was taken away.

This made it virtually impossible for me to carry out my work. Even having a coffee with colleagues was difficult - and I could get access to my pigeon-hole to collect my pay slip only by asking them to let me in.

My head of department started to question my ability. I was told that I had "oversold" my abilities and that the work I had recently carried out contained no substance and was disappointing.

I began to believe what I was being told. My self-esteem plummeted.

On several occasions I felt suicidal and surfed the internet to investigate painless methods of escaping the unbearable mental pain. Only the timely intervention of colleagues has kept me going.

I discovered what wonderful colleagues I had. They have provided support throughout the past few years, even at the risk of damaging their own careers. There are still some decent, honest people at this university - unfortunately, they seem not to be in senior positions.

My mental and physical health has worsened. After 25 years of having never seen a doctor I have now been in and out of hospital, seen multiple specialists, been pricked, probed, scanned, fingered and chopped.

But the worst experience was being referred to the local psychiatric hospital. Following an hour-long interview, the consultant said that my depression was entirely work-related.

I know I am not alone. The consultant told me that he had referred many staff from my university. My GP has also seen a disproportionate number of our academics.

Bullying has become more prevalent in universities than we would like to admit. Our vice-chancellor recently said that he wanted to stamp out the problem. But I do not think it is really taken seriously.

The counsellors I spoke to said they could do very little unless the cause of the stress was removed. But its roots are to be found in the way everyone today has been made accountable to a line manager.

Academics do not usually make good managers. When they are put into such posts and then put under pressure to achieve targets, they pass their stress down the line. And this fuels bullying.

There is something very sick in our universities. The whole culture needs to be changed.

The academic who wrote this article has asked to remain anonymous.

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