When most people think of occupational health and safety (OHS), they immediately think of accidents, falls, machine issues, and preventing incidents through equipment maintenance, personal protection equipment (PPE) and operational standards.
But OHS is a much broader field – and some important areas are often ignored for the sake of revenue generation and – in quite a few instances – for the sake of control.
Hidden in plain sight
If you look at small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) with international offices and a wide salary scale across the team, the whole staff can be placed under enormous pressure regardless of pay. But for the cheaper staff, more is often at stake and unscrupulous managers can take advantage of this. It is quite common for SMEs to employ less experienced staff, even if this seems counterintuitive. Less experienced workers are usually more in need of a job because of factors including financial responsibilities, stressful family situations such as being the sole breadwinner or a single parent, or even underlying health problems. Such people are ultimately cheaper to employ.
When someone is in fear of their job and can ill-afford to be dismissed, they might accept a workplace where they are threatened and intimidated. These conditions result in poor performance brought on by stress, anxiety, and overwork. This, in turn, leads to accidents, mistakes and serious mental and physical health issues.
Generally, managers who don’t indulge in practices that create a culture of fear will accommodate and assist workers when returning to work after an OHS incident. But too often in SMEs, the workers who fall into the lower salary brackets have no support whatsoever and no healthcare provisions, such as company-sponsored health insurance, if they are off work ill.
While researching this article, I spoke with many people who have been in situations where they were constantly living in fear of losing their job. They would work seven days a week and all hours they could stay awake, wouldn’t take any time off, and were frequently dragged into scenarios that affected their health.
When a worker is put under extreme pressure to perform, they invariably suffer through stress, anxiety and illness, leading to having to take time off work. That creates more anxiety because if they take time off work, they may not have a job to return to, particularly if they are working in a country with labour laws that make dismissal easy and offer workers limited options for legal recourse.
According to Peter Kelly, senior psychologist for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress is “a perceived inability to achieve a desired goal”.
Speaking on the Safety and Health Practitioner podcast, he said that you might feel like you’re on target and in control, but “additional elements” can come into play. These may be fine periodically – after all, every job has its stresses, but according to Kelly, the issue is when a worker experiences “sustained levels of extra activity [they] can’t control and deal with”.
“That is the area that needs to be closely looked at because if it is out of the control of the worker, who is in control?” Kelly told the podcast.
He attributes the growing number of work days lost to occupational stress to the different demands of modern workplaces, even if stress itself is nothing new.
The Office of National Statistics 2019-2020 Labour Force Survey found that 828,000 workers in the UK were suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety, resulting in a loss of 17.9 million work days.
Workplace stress caused by emotional and psychological gaslighting
Gaslighting is a major problem in our workplaces. It is not new, but it is only recently that it is being more widely recognised as a toxic behaviour in relationships, whether they are professional and personal. The abusive partner in a private relationship has much in common with an abusive manager in a workplace situation.
It’s likely you’ve heard of the psychological term ‘gaslighting’ in the context of a romantic relationship. But it also exists within our workplaces and it’s a complex behaviour to identify and manage, especially for staff members at the bottom of a company hierarchy.
Do any of these lines sound familiar?
“Didn’t you get my email? We moved the meeting ahead by an hour.”
“I never said I was going to give you a promotion, where did you get that idea from?”
“The rest of the team are saying you’re not pulling your weight. But I think you’re doing fine.”
If you’ve encountered someone saying something like this to you, you might have been on the receiving end of a gaslighter – and, chances are, you didn’t notice.
The professional gaslighter
“Gaslighters have a very domineering personality,” says Amberley Meredith, consultant at Being Well Process and a registered psychologist.
In an interview with the Australian HR Institute, she said this behaviour can occur vertically (between co-workers) and horizontally (between a manager and their direct report) in a workplace.
“If they know what your weak spots are, they will use them against you – usually in subtle and cruel ways. They’re different from the narcissist who just wants everyone to think they’re fabulous, the gaslighter wants to manipulate and control. People can become completely unhinged by this process,” she said.
Gaslighters will utilise elaborate and subtle forms of manipulation to achieve their desired outcomes. The difference between a gaslighter and an overt bully is visibility.
Meredith describes bullies as “often reactionary” – these are the people who might mock a colleague and they often operate in packs, whereas the gaslighter operates alone “and they’re playing a long game”.
The victims of gaslighters usually experience “a rollercoaster of emotions”. Trust might be established initially. For example, they might confide in the victim or make promises, only to deny this later, according to Meredith. The behaviour usually isn’t obvious. Other colleagues might not even notice. But they are “sowing the seed of doubt and carefully watering that seed over time”.
And the gaslighter might discredit their victim to other colleagues. Do any of these lines sound familiar?
“She’s got mental problems; she should probably see a shrink!”
“He’s just not up to the job, he’s incompetent.”
“She’s not a team player, wouldn’t you agree? She was no help on that big event project last month.”
“Does anyone believe his stories about going rock-climbing on the weekend? Surely he’s making that up. Look at him, he could barely climb the steps of a double-decker bus!”
These sort of behaviours pit other staff members against the victim while the gaslighting behaviour toward the victim erodes their sense of self. It is a drip-feeding process, so the victim probably won’t notice until it’s too late. By then, they are convinced they are at fault, they are not good enough, they are the issue.
For some gaslighters, they may have experienced trauma or have their own long-standing issues of insecurity, in much the same way that many overt bullies are actually cowards. It is more sinister than being merely manipulative, something most of us are capable of to differing degrees, but gaslighting behaviour is often learned from an early age. While most of us have used manipulation to get our own way, gaslighting is about controlling someone else.
And when the victim has been gaslit to the point that they doubt their own self-worth and others are sharing those doubts, the gaslighter has control and is in a position where they can easily blame others. They take all the power and little of the responsibility.
Identifying a gaslighter
It is not easy to identify a gaslighter but there are signs to be aware of. This is a comprehensive but by no means exhaustive list.
- Breaking social rules and ignoring boundaries. For example, making a crass joke at a company event, such as the office Christmas party, and expecting everyone to be amused.
- Not admitting to any faults. For example, the manager who, even when confronted with a mistake they have clearly made through their own incompetence, manages to blame it entirely on someone else.
- Becoming aggressive or defensive when criticised. Similar to not admitting to any faults, gaslighters tend to act out when they are criticised rather than taking the time to reflect on why they were criticised in the first place.
- Incompetence. It may seem counterintuitive for a manager but if they are incompetent themselves, they can use gaslighting techniques to deflect attention from their own professional inadequacies, especially by blaming others.
- Lying and exaggeration. For example, the manager who name-drops even if it is implausible that they have met that particular person.
- False image projection. Related to lying and exaggeration, the gaslighter may talk about themselves in a way that portrays them as more powerful or qualified or connected than they really are.
- Manipulation to boost their own ego or simply for sport. For example, pitting colleagues against each other so one appears to be more loyal to the gaslighter than the other.
- Playing “top trumps” with other people’s problems. For example, an employee might tell their manager that they need to take a few days off because their marriage has broken down. Instead of being understanding, the manager will imply that they have bigger problems but they’re still soldiering on. Something like “You might be separating from your wife, but I was back at my desk the very next day after my mother died!” could be said, even if their mother is alive and well.
- High absenteeism with a company. When a noticeable number of employees are taking more days off, especially for mental health reasons or physical illness that can be stress related, such as shingles, there could be a gaslighter in a position of power.
- Guilt-tripping and coercion. Making employees feel guilty for mistakes, even minor ones, or for things beyond their control, such as having to take time off because of a death in the family, is classic gaslighting behaviour. Using the guilt to then get what they want from the victim is typical of the related coercion.
- High drama. A gaslighter can often exhibit dramatic behaviour or a short temper. They may go from being perfectly pleasant and civil to enraged in a matter of moments.
- Damning with false praise. The gaslighter may appear to be making a sympathetic statement but they are instilling self-doubt in their victim. For example, the boss who says, “I know you tried your best and you have worked so hard on this project but maybe you’re just not ready for this level of responsibility.”
- Dragging others into the equation. The gaslighter can isolate an employee by creating the impression that the rest of the team is against them. For example, “I’ve spoken to everyone else who worked on that disastrous pitch and they have singled you out as the weak link.”
- The company has a high staff turnover, but nobody is quite sure why this is happening. It is not likely, for example, for a gaslighting victim to admit they were gaslit during an exit interview because they may not be aware this has happened to them.
The effects of gaslighting
Gaslighting is particularly damaging because of the knock-on effects. The harassment, pressure and outright abuse can often be noticed by people not directly involved in the gaslighting, even if they can’t quite put their finger on what the problem is or even identify who is responsible for creating the toxic workplace environment.
Ironically, gaslighting is usually counterproductive. The gaslighter wastes time and money. Their manipulative games are time-consuming and often exhausting for everyone involved. Most people just want to be able to focus on their jobs without being dragged into the inevitable poisonous politics created by gaslighting activities. And money is lost when it affects productivity and people are taking more time off because of physical and mental health issues. The resultant high staff turnover is also expensive.
And while it is frustrating for staff left behind to constantly pick up the pieces when colleagues keep quitting, the gaslighting manager may well continue their damaging actions by hiring cheaper and less experienced staff who are often easier to manipulate and are scared of losing their jobs.
When staff do take time off for mental health reasons after a gaslighting episode, a comprehensive return-to-work programme is essential although often impossible if the gaslighter remains in their position of power.
It is all well and good getting everyone in the company vaccinated against the flu each winter and boasting about looking after your staff. But this does not hide the fact that some companies see staff as disposable when in reality they should be seen as assets.
When the company is the cause of stress, anxiety, unnecessary illness and excessive sick leave, it is time to act. No one in the workplace should have to be worried about going into work and becoming ill because of intimidation and or threats to sack them.
Gaslighters will often ensure they have a foot in both camps, gaslighting up and down the hierarchy to control every aspect.
Time to get real and stop the rot
Victims of gaslighting can develop trauma-based mental injuries and adjustment disorders from being exposed to this form of psychological manipulation, and may require therapy to help them adjust, adapt and become productive employees again.
Employees who feel they’re being gaslighted, threatened or intimidated must protect themselves. They should start recording conversations in a journal or send messages to a trusted friend so they can look back later and see if there are any inconsistencies that are arising in someone’s behaviour.
When a company is clearly unwilling to make the changes to stop gaslighting, victims need to feel empowered to move on. This could mean getting professional help for the psychological trauma as well as professional advice, such as getting a compassionate recruiter to help them prepare their CV and put them forward for roles in companies that have a good reputation for staff welfare.
It is time to get real about gaslighting and the serious OHS issues it creates. It is time to call it like it is. Gaslighting managers are modern day white collar gangmasters.