The Bullied Blogger: Nothing can stop the Spanish Inquisition

April 21, 2009

14 April: Dominic did not check my last email to human resources and when he arrives home and reads it he is despairing. He feels I am too stressed and too emotionally involved to be able to write and “censor” my words so that the university cannot find more to accuse me of. He is worried about me and feels I need to go to the doctor again before the pre-investigation meeting.

I go to see Dr Cumin. She spends far longer with me than the amount of time allocated to each patient. My blood pressure is terrible, I am not sleeping and she is anxious about my mental health. She asks a range of questions and I know what she is doing – screening for suicide risk. In my most fatalistic moments I have wondered whether it’s all worth it. But I know I could never do such a thing to my children and to Dominic. I know I’m in bad shape but tell Dr Cumin I am able to be coherent and grounded. I explain that my instability is more about the grievance and disciplinary.

Dr Cumin gives me a résumé of severe stress, and provides a leaflet/questionnaire for guidance.

It covers:
Cognitive symptoms
Emotional symptoms
Memory problems
Inability to concentrate
Poor judgment
Seeing only the negative
Anxious or racing thoughts
Constant worrying
Irritability or short temper
Agitation, inability to relax
Feeling overwhelmed
Sense of loneliness and isolation
Depression or general unhappiness
Physical symptoms
Behavioural symptoms
Aches and pains
Diarrhoea or constipation
Nausea, dizziness
Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
Loss of sex drive
Frequent colds
Eating more or less
Sleeping too much or too little
Isolating yourself from others
Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
Using alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to relax
Nervous habits, for example nail-biting, pacing

After filling in the form, she is anxious about the findings. She wants to send a letter to the university. It reads: “… is experiencing severe stress and I am confounded by the attitude of your university. I would have thought that a division of social sciences would have greater insight into my patient’s symptoms and would have compassion and support in such circumstances…”

I read the letter and find it amusing and suggest to Dr Cumin that if she were a member of staff at the university she could be suspended and have disciplinary action taken against her. She suggests I take the letter with me to the disciplinary meeting. I thank Dr Cumin.

After the meeting I get home and drift on to the internet. Looking at academic bullying websites, I discover the term “mobbing”: “Psychological mobbing in working life involves hostile and unethical communication, directed in a systematic manner by one or more individuals, mainly toward one individual who, due to mobbing, is pushed into a helpless and defenceless position…” Surely the university is aware of such organisational dysfunctions? Perhaps this is my way of legitimising some of the stupid things I have done.

16 April: It’s today that I have my pre-disciplinary meeting. I am exhausted with it all. I have not slept more than three hours a night, and I feel absurdly fixated on the issues. I can rationalise things. I know that work is not that important, and I know I should not be so focused on this. I have trawled the internet and read papers on what I am going through. Dominic is so supportive – he is willing to see things get played out and understands I need justice.

I meet with Colin Horrocks an hour before the meeting. I explain I want to open with the issue about me being unable to meet with university staff in a social context. He is anxious I do not lose my temper. He wants to completely focus on the level of stress I am experiencing, and to explain my behaviour in this context.

We enter the building and are invited into the room of the pro vice-chancellor for law and social sciences, who sits behind an expensive-looking embossed-leather desk. An administrator is also in attendance to take notes. I tell nobody, even Colin, but I am recording the session with an Olympus digital voice recorder. I have not even told Dominic, but with such despicable behaviour I will use every tool I can as evidence.

The pro vice-chancellor opens the meeting; he seems very kind and concerned. His voice is reassuring and he says he wants to “sort this out as a matter of some urgency”. I am impressed with his words, compassionate disposition and willingness to engage. Perhaps this man is different – maybe he is the guy who comes good in the end, willing to go against bad practice.

I start with asking for clarification about the fact that I cannot socialise with my colleagues at the university. The administrator tells me that this is “standard practice” in these situations. I suggest that the university is acting illegally. I quote the Human Rights Act under Section 11, the right of association and assembly. For the first time, for a moment, there a glimpse of uncertainty and panic from the senior administrator who is taking minutes. Then recovery. The pro vice-chancellor suggests that she “look into it”.

We then enter into the accusation and inquisitorial part of the meeting. The pro vice-chancellor calmly explains that some of the questions will be hard for me to answer but that we must be assured that he wishes to complete on matters ASAP. Reading between the lines, I sense he is on my side! He starts with the email I sent that was my grievance submission to HR. First, he asks what was in my mind. I explain it must be viewed in terms of my state of mind. I was very stressed out… he asks about the clip art of three chicks with the statement “Happy Easter”. Again I explain I realise that it could be seen as an act of aggression (in my mind this is surreal – three chicks an act of aggression?) but I apologise unreservedly.

He then moves on to the HR emails. He picks everything that could be viewed as a negative; his attitude remains warm and supportive. However, in any other situation the comments I made to human resources would be seen as relatively trivial. At this point I wonder: HR may have a great deal to lose in that they did not pick up my stress-related issues. What do they have to lose in terms of their reputation if it is accepted that I was suffering from work-related stress?

After almost an hour and 30 minutes the meeting is completed. I am told there are meetings with Marcus and Helen this afternoon. I am told that the pro vice-chancellor will reach his conclusions by lunchtime tomorrow and he will email and post them to me by 2pm. I have a brief conversation with Colin before we depart. He agrees with me; he also thinks the meeting went well.

17 April: I have been waiting all morning for the email. At 1.30pm it comes. I open it expecting a positive conclusion – and I discover that I am going to be subject to a disciplinary action. All the soft words, engaging behaviour and support were a lie! “It is my view this academic has acted in ways that are unacceptable in any university. It is my conclusion that she should be subject to a disciplinary…”

Nothing stops the machine; it moves on with an unrelenting terrible force. It seems there is no humanity – only a desire for retribution. I feel broken, lost and I want to host the white flag. The only options are to fight or resign.

Are you experiencing problems at work?

Whether it’s money worries, issues with colleagues or emotional difficulties, the College and University Support Network (CUSN) can help. CUSN provides free, confidential support services, 24/7, specifically for all staff working in adult, further and higher education. Established by Teacher Support Network and supported by the University and College Union, CUSN offers information and advice, telephone counselling, online and telephone coaching and financial assistance. All CUSN services are delivered by professional advisers, counsellors and coaches.

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