My bullying boss ground me into depression – and I won’t be the last

Reporting procedures were woefully inadequate, while senior managers frequently enabled intimidatory behaviour, says an anonymous UK academic

December 11, 2019
Source: Getty

It took me quite a while to realise that I was being bullied. Bullying in academia doesn’t look like bullying at school: I wasn’t pushed up against a wall or excluded from playtime games. But I have been shouted at in meetings. I have been sent breathtakingly critical emails, filled with ill-informed assumptions and irrational, knee-jerk (mis)readings of situations. And I have been denied career opportunities that have been readily extended to colleagues with identical lists of achievements.

My mistake was to show vulnerability in a meeting with this person – my line manager – during my first term at my Russell Group university. I admitted, my voice cracking, that I was working as hard as I could. I couldn’t work any harder. The response? Not sympathy but excoriation. I left the meeting shaking and burst into tears in the street, before stumbling into the university chaplaincy for solace.

The bully started to dominate my thoughts even outside work. I became afraid to express views in meetings, tempering my natural vivacity. Even my office wasn’t a safe haven; accusations and upbraidings would lie in wait as I fearfully opened my email inbox, cc’d to various colleagues to advertise and magnify my supposed misdemeanours.

Matters came to a head when I was due for a long-awaited sabbatical. My boss turned my request down. The document justifying the decision, to which I was granted access only after making repeated (assiduously polite) requests to my boss’ manager, denigrated my achievements and even claimed a large part of the credit for the significant research grant I had won.

More shocking still was the response to my disclosure of an incurable medical condition that I had developed (one of whose causes can be sustained stress), which is protected under the Equality Act. My boss wrote that my condition had been “taken into consideration” but deemed to have had no effect on my research performance – despite never having asked me about it.

I fought my case and won, but it took many months, during which I lost confidence and accumulated yet more stress. When my boss sent me an unprecedentedly aggressive email telling me off like a child and trying to prevent me from carrying out legitimate research activities, I could not take it any longer. I began to suffer panic attacks. I felt hopeless, exhausted, fearful, and was constantly on the brink of tears. My doctor insisted that I take time off and pointedly wrote on the medical note that I was signed off for “work-related stress and associated depression”.

My experience is far from unique. Everyone in the school suffered to some degree. Open sessions – where everyone could supposedly put forth their views – became arenas for simply telling us what to do. But some colleagues were targeted for particular levels of harassment. One colleague was more or less forced out over a minor issue blown out of all proportion. The chaplain I saw when my bullying began told me that I was not the first person in my school that they had seen on the same account. Indeed, the university counsellor I saw a while back, before the stress epidemic made support virtually impossible to come by, knew my boss’ name all too well.

A colleague, who I will call Alex, is in some senses even more senior than the bully, but still suffered immensely. In this case, the crisis followed a meeting at which Alex – who is the opposite gender from me – spoke out about excessive workloads. Our boss called Alex into a one-to-one meeting, for which no agenda was provided and of which no record was kept. This was a set piece of aggressive bullying, involving sustained shouting, by the end of which Alex was in tears.

Alex regards that meeting as the clear trigger for the onset of serious depression in the days that followed, including strong suicidal thoughts. Even after taking some time off to recuperate, Alex still shunned our building for fear of meeting the bully, on one occasion running down the street to avoid an encounter.

Our university boasts of being committed to harmonious working practices, but our bully’s boss frequently enabled rather than questioned the bully’s behaviour. We also found our university’s reporting procedures woefully inadequate. Any reports of “inappropriate behaviour” were meant to be resolved through “mediation”. We should, in short, meet with our bully to sort things out.

There was no whistleblowing procedure at all, and the grievance option was undermined in Alex’s case by the lack of documented evidence. Alex’s advice is now always to take a colleague to meetings at which you expect to be bullied, always to ask for an agenda and always to record it – even if it is just by taking notes.

Eventually, we were separately promised – thanks in no small part to the efforts of our union – that our bully would no longer manage us. In my case, this – in addition to strong medication and exercise – has allowed me to control my depression and return to work. I am regaining my sense of self and my ability to teach, think and write. I am determined to reclaim the vocation that I love.

But my reflex to hold my breath when I enter our building persists. And I am sad that I lack the mental strength to call this bullying boss to account beyond these anonymised words. I fear that I will be far from the last to suffer.

The author is an academic at a Russell Group university.

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Reader's comments (8)

This is not unusual in the commercial world either, it's usually because the manager is insecure and needs to deflect attention from their own inadequacy. In the end you either change yourself or change the people. I decided to change people and just found a way out. But it stays with you, after 30 years I still have the occasional nightmare.
Sympathy to the author for having to endure this archaic regime. Unfortunately, this experience is all too common in the modern university, which rewards egomaniacs and brutal managerialism. I experienced a similar culture, under a sociopathic head of department, at a 'reputable' UK business school. Multiple staff - several of whom lodged extensive grievances- were managed out of the department, often under severance agreements with gagging clauses, before the offending department head left under a cloud, only to reappear at a competitor institution. All enabled by toxic organisational culture from the VC down, with HR playing the role of the Gestapo.
I have tremendous sympathy for the author. I have heard far too many stories like this one. People are really afraid. And the job market in academia is so competitive it can be terribly difficult to escape these kinds of situations. Something must be done, but I don't know what.
I too have experienced being managed out of an academic position at a Russell group university, while still being a productive and highly cited research academic. I was without a job for four years (and lost any chance of promotion to a professorial position) as I was unable to move in the U.K. or abroad because of aged relatives and children being settled in school. We need to have new laws passed in parliament that specifically legislate against these sort of activities, and the whole sector thrown open to scrutiny by a new legal framework. The act and activities associated with "academic bullying" needs nothing short of legislation, in order to prevent it.
It's about twenty years since I retired from a Russell Group University but in those days if you were anticipating a difficult one to one meeting you could ask the AUT to provide someone to attend with you. An alternative was to insist that the meeting be recorded.
Reminds me of the Lindsey Shepard affair in Canada.
It's terrifying how common this is. I suffered much the same treatment at the hands of a Head of Department which resulted in anxiety and depression which is still affecting my work now. I dread bumping into this ex-boss in the corridor, or having to go anywhere near that department. A colleague of mine says that no matter how senior we are, we're only one Head of Department away from being considered persona non-grata and forced out of our roles.
I would like to extend as much consolation and warmth as possible to the author. A similar set of things happened to me to a point where I thought I was reading about my story. I don’t want to say much more than that people who bully will eventually get their comeuppance. In my case the bully was the dean of who enjoyed a salary of a few thousands of pounds for many years and I was the humble little hard-done by academic. He bullied away, poking at academics both big and small and in my case it had a horrible impact on me in ways that the author describes. I was immensely stressed, put on weight and started hating a job I once loved. I was often tearful and upset, and I felt completely helpless. Things changed when I kicked up a humongous stink and I told everyone who had an ear about what he was doing. Within a year, through an extraordinary set of events that I can only attribute to God’s intervention (because people senior to the dean were “scared” of him and would not tackle him) the said dean was out of his job and he is now working in the “gig economy” (that is, unemployed). He won’t get hired anywhere else because he is a known bully. Whether he jumped voluntarily by taking a redundancy payout or whether he was pushed doesn’t really matter because the great news is that he is gone. The moral of the story is that you might feel small and powerless but there is power in telling everyone you can tell about what a bully is doing. Talk loudly, submit grievances, call the union and do anything but suffer quietly. Secretly record meetings if you have to. Get together with everyone else he or she has bullied and use academic politics to ensure that the tide turns against the person bullying you. Eventually a very senior bully will become too embarrassing for the university to keep supporting. It not a cliche that the days of a thief are numbered and so it is that bullies WILL get their comeuppance.

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