Counsellors vs Workplace Harassment

To effectively counsel a client who has been the target of workplace harassment it is helpful to have an understanding of relevant legislation. The following is an extract from the Queensland Government Department of Employment and Industrial Relations (it is recommended that counsellors from other states and territories check their relevant legislation).

The QLD Dept of Employment and Industrial Relations, defines workplace harassment as follows:

“Where a person is subjected to behaviour, other than sexual harassment that:

  • is repeated, unwelcome and unsolicited
  • the person considers the behaviour to be offensive, intimidating, humiliating or threatening
  • a reasonable person would consider the behaviour to be offensive, humiliating, intimidating or threatening.”

Workplace harassment can be committed by an employer, and employee, a co-worker, a group of co-workers, a manager, a client, a customer or a member of the public. Workplace harassment covers a wide range of behaviours from subtle intimidation to more obvious aggressive tactics, including:

  • abusing a person loudly, usually when others are present
  • repeated threats of dismissal or other severe punishment for no reason
  • constant ridicule and being put down
  • leaving offensive messages on email or the telephone
  • sabotaging a person’s work, for example by deliberately withholding information or supplying incorrect information
  • maliciously excluding and isolating a person from workplace activities
  • persistent and unjustified criticisms, often about petty irrelevant or insignificant matters
  • humiliating a person through gestures, sarcasm, criticism and insults, often in front of customers, management or other workers
  • spreading gossip or false, malicious rumours about a person with an intent to cause that person harm.

Management behaviour can be considered workplace harassment when it is used:

  • primarily to offend, intimidate, humiliate or threaten workers
  • to create an environment where workplace harassment is more likely to occur

What is not considered workplace harassment is:

  • reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way
  • acts of unlawful discrimination, vilification or sexual harassment

The Symptoms of Workplace Harassment

Many of us already know that stress is a double edge sword. Stress can be good for us when preparing us for a special or threatening event. Many will be familiar with the concept of the Fight and Flight Syndrome. When a threat is perceived, our brain and body prepares to do battle or to run. The chemical changes make us more alert, with heightened response in order to perform at our fastest, strongest and highest level of alertness.

Too much stress though can reduce our performance. When stress becomes anxiety or induces panic attacks, an individual can freeze. For example, some individuals when asked to make a speech in public suffer panic attacks due to their increased anxiety levels. For others sitting an exam may be so anxiety provoking that their minds become blank and they cannot recall well-revised information.

Individuals who endure severe stress over a prolonged period can suffer serious psychological and physical health problems. Dr Hans Selye found that chronic exposure to severe stressors produces a sequence of three physiological stages: (1) alarm, (2) resistance and (3) exhaustion (Carlson, et al. 2007). These three stages are collectively referred to as the general adaptation syndrome.

According to Carlson, et al. (2007) the alarm stage occurs when an individual is first confronted with a stressor. The individual may experience shock (i.e. arousal of the autonomous nervous system causing impairment of physiological functioning). If this is a reaction to a temporary event, the physiological state will return to normal within a short period.

However, with continued exposure to the stressor the individual enters the stage of resistance, causing the individual’s physiological functioning to continue at an extreme level. This stage reflects the individual’s adaptation to the stressor. Should the individual continue to be exposed to the stressor, the autonomous nervous system continues to function at the above normal level entering the exhaustion stage. During this stage the individual loses the ability to adapt, resistance decreases to below normal levels leaving the individual susceptible to illness.


Figure 1: The three phases of the general adaptation syndrome as proposed by Hans Selye.

Source: Carlson, N., Heth, C.D., Miller, H., Donahoe, J.W., Buskist, W., Martin, G. N., (2007). Psychology: The Science of Behaviour (6th Ed). Boston, USA: Allyn and Bacon-Pearson

When a client presents to a counsellor suffering the effects of workplace harassment, they often express feelings of anger, shame, confusion, powerlessness and thoughts of “I’m going crazy, nothing makes sense anymore” as well as a loss of trust and fear of workplace situations (Clarke, 2007).

Clarke (2007) explains that in the workplace, the person who is being harassed is not necessarily aware of the full impact of the problem. Small things occur that seem strange but are hardly noticeable, the target doubts themselves and tends to dismiss the unwanted behaviour as trivial and does not recognise it for what it is. They begin obsessing about the small things, trying to analyse what it is, why it’s happening. They analyse their own behaviour in an attempt to identify some fault that could be attracting the unwanted and negative behaviour.

The target then begins to lose confidence in themselves and their self-esteem plummets. Often at this time, they will turn to a close friend or colleague who may or may not recognise the concerns for what they are. If it is suggested that the target is simply imagining things or blowing things out of proportion, this dis-empowers them and they may begin to doubt themselves further. Such individuals have described feelings of confusion and a belief that they are going crazy.

Victims of workplace harassment report feelings of shame and embarrassment, including the fear of “not being believed”. Many individuals who experience workplace harassment cite envy as the likely reason for their bullying and many perpetrators harass in attempt to protect or improve their position or interest in an organisation (Piolpot-Rocaboy, 2006). It can be difficult for the target to accept the intent of the perpetrator and thus victims often go into denial.

The loss of confidence they experience is due to the realisation that they have trusted somebody how is not trustworthy. They begin to doubt themselves, and their effectiveness at their job. They question their own values and beliefs, doubting their own levels of resilience and control of their own lives.

Case Study – Emily

Emily had been working in the health care industry for many years. She loved her job, loved her clients and was enthusiastic about the work she was doing. Because of her natural affiliation with her clients and work colleagues she was very popular. At Christmas many clients would pop little gifts in to the office for her. As she knew all her clients survived on limited budgets, this meant a great deal to her.

She cared for her colleagues and due to her qualifications and training was a good listener. It did not take long for the office staff to know that she kept everything confidential, and because of the trust they had in her, would often come to vent, and take on suggestions to help them change their attitudes and cope better in today’s changing work environment.

Emily was also a great team player, she would often put aside her own work to help a colleague and she was always happy to share her resources. When her manager made an unexpected request for information or the collaboration of research, Emily took on the extra task and always completed it in time. If necessary she would take work home with her to ensure she kept up with the workload. Emily was a happy, flexible person. She felt life had been good to her.

When changes began to occur in her workplace, Emily initially took them in her stride. A new managerial structure was created and a new staff member came on board. The organisation was expanding and it was an exciting time to be working there.

As the weeks went by however, things began changing for the worse. Emily found that her manager’s attitude towards her was becoming distant and more abrupt. Emily was not being told relevant information about changes, she was getting the cold shoulder from her manger, and extra demands were being placed on her that were not being placed on her colleagues.

The supervision of her work became harsher, and unscheduled meetings and audits where announced with little notice to prepare and she was required to report to her manager on an almost constant basis which became problematic and time consuming with her already heavy workload. Her manager began to make unfounded criticisms of her work and changed the way things needed to be done.

Emily approached her manager and explained that she felt something had changed between them, she asked if it was because of something she had done to offend her manager, but was simply told it was her imagination. However, Emily knew the sarcasm and comments of dismissal from her manager regarding her contributions during team meetings was not a figment of her imagination, because other staff members had commented about them. While her colleagues may have felt that they were supporting her, their comments only added to Emily’s humiliation.

Emily became hyper vigilant about her behaviour, trying harder to please, but the criticism only increased. She was being isolated from other members of the staff who she had previously been close to. Emily began to take days off work as often as she could, firstly to help her cope with the stress and secondly to avoid the office environment.

Considering the above information, it is easy to foresee that individuals who are experiencing workplace harassment often experience a number of physical and psychological symptoms that may include (Field, T., 1996):

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of energy/fatigue
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Loss of appetite/indigestion
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Nightmares
  • Substance abuse: alcohol
  • Withdrawal from people/friends/family
  • Indecision/loss of concentration
  • Unwillingness or inability to trust

Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder

Stress that is initiated by a single, sudden dramatic incident (such as a car accident) or being a witness to a traumatic event can result in posttraumatic stress disorder. However, individuals experiencing an ongoing occurrence of negative stress (such as being a constant witness to trauma as an officer in the emergency services or an individual constantly finding themselves the subject of workplace harassment) will exhibit similar symptoms to PTSD, but this is known as Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder (PDSD). The trauma is cumulative rather than sudden.

The symptoms are the same: high levels of anxiety, which can swing to deep levels of depression. Hence, individuals will often resign, withdraw from life or suffer in silence. Triggers can set off panic attacks similar to those experienced by individuals diagnosed with PTSD, but the triggers are different. They could be letters marked as “Private and Confidential”, certain words, images or phrases associated with work (such as the company logo).

Both Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder may be assisted in treatment outcomes through SSRI’s (like Prozac and Paxil) for anxiety; but this is not always the case. Collaboration with a psychiatrist on the matter could be beneficial to help the client determine the potential usefulness of such medications in the context of their overall treatment plan.

Understanding the Repercussions for the Client

Often the non-judgemental and accepting mannerisms of the counsellor are enough for the client to open up and share their experiences. However, some clients will find it difficult to trust the counsellor, having felt betrayed numerous times.

Field (1996) explains that counsellors can be surprised by the levels of anger displayed by clients, and their uninhibited need for justice. Overall, most clients are confused, with feelings of guilt and shame; having once been happy successful people, now reduced to shadows of their former selves.

To understand the diverse reactions of clients who have experienced workplace harassment, let’s consider Emily’s case further…

When Emily first enters our story, she is happy with her life. She loves her work, loves working with her clients and loves her job. She gets on well with her work colleagues, she’s a team player, and takes pride in being a confidante to some of her colleagues.

Let’s assume that Emily has high self-esteem and self-confidence. She believes in her own abilities and skills. She knows she is effective and efficient and takes pride in her work. She obviously has high moral development because she understands the meaning of confidentiality and her colleagues trust her. It could be assumed (for the sake of this exercise) that because she is popular with her colleagues that she is fun to work.

Now let’s examine how Emily may be reacting to the changes that have come about with the change of management.

  • Emily is no longer receiving vital information to do her job well.
  • She is getting the “cold shoulder” from her manager.
  • Extra demands are being placed on her, but not on other colleagues.
  • Over supervision of her work, with unscheduled meetings and audits with little to no time to prepare.
  • Managerial criticism of her work that she has never experienced before.

How will Emily react to the above changes in her work environment?

When Emily notices that she is not receiving the information she requires for her to perform her job well she may, at first, start asking questions in regard to what she has done to be isolated like this. She is likely to examine her own behaviour over the past few weeks or months to try and identify something that she has done wrong to have caused the change in attitude from her manager. At this point, Emily’s stress levels will have increased and she will be entering the adaptation stage.

Knowing something has changed, but not knowing what or why, Emily may start to doubt her own abilities. Emily’s self-esteem and confidence may be diminishing because she is beginning to doubt herself. Still believing she has done something wrong to have caused her manager’s change of attitude, but not knowing what, anxiety levels begin to rise as Emily is now dealing with the unknown: She does not know what she has to do to regain her manager’s confidence and approval.

Further damage to Emily’s self-esteem and self-confidence is caused by the lack of information she receives. Should she confront (politely) her manager or try to get the information from other staff members? Should she just wait and hope the whole thing sorts itself out and blows over. Emily (like many other targets of workplace harassment) may feel guilty for attracting negative attention from her manager, as this will not fit with her work ethic.

Emily could feel intimidated when she receives the “cold shoulder” from her manager. As she is unaware of the causes of the negative responses from her manager, Emily may partake in avoidance behaviour. This will add to her feelings of isolation.

Emily may or may not know the office politics, but she may begin to lose trust in her colleagues, having lost faith in her own ability to be a reasonable judge of character. She may be afraid to ask questions in case she trusts the wrong person and the problem escalates.

Resentment and anger may begin to take hold, as Emily remembers how she has shared her resources with all her colleagues in the past, and now feels used as someone close to her has obviously caused her problems with her manager. Someone she has trusted and someone with whom she has been generous. Feelings of anger and resentment now accompany insecurity and isolation as Emily withdraws further; no longer knowing who she can trust to talk to about the problem.

At staff meetings, Emily’s contributions are greeted with sarcastic comments from her manager. Silently Emily wonders what she has done wrong to deserve such treatment. She remembers all the work she had completed since the change of management, she examines each case and correspondence with her manager to identify if she may have said or done something to give offence. As Emily’s levels of guilt rise, further damage to her self-esteem and self-confidence occurs as she becomes more anxious and hyper vigilant trying to “read” her colleagues to know who she can trust who she can turn to.

The extra demands made upon Emily and not on her colleagues may invoke further anger. Emily will become less co-operative with her manager. Due to the resentment Emily feels, she may reduce her levels of co-operation regarding volunteering to take on other work, and now “just do her job and what is required”.

Workplace harassment reduces productivity. With her increasing levels of stress and increasing anxiety, Emily finds she is tensing her muscles, adding to feelings of tiredness and stiffness.

As Emily has worked with the organisation for some years, she is finding the increased supervision imposed on her is humiliating. Emily knows that other staff members who have only been with the company a few months are not being supervised. Emily’s levels of anxiety increase further as she worries about her preparation for the questions she knows her manager will ask.

At the last meeting the questions were ambiguous. Emily was not sure how to answer them. She is finding that her job description is changing, mixed messages are sent. Once she may have asked for clarification, now she is afraid to ask for fear of seemingly not capable of performing at her job. Again Emily’s levels of stress rise in correlation with her levels of anxiety due to the unknown.

At a team meeting, Emily puts forward some ideas she has on improving the quality of service, a number of her suggestions are dismissed by her manager without further discussion. Her colleagues look at her, curious about the change of attitude of their manager towards Emily. They all know something is going on, but what? Lost in her own thoughts, Emily is no longer listening at the meeting. She has had difficulty concentrating for some time, and has found it difficult to keep her thoughts on work, often drifting back to the relationship issues with herself and her manager.

Knowing that her colleagues are looking at her, Emily feels embarrassed and humiliated. She sits in her chair remaining silent not contributing further to the team discussion. Her self-worth as a team member has plummeted.

At this point Emily takes time off to visit her doctor. Emily explains she is suffering from headaches, all her muscles are tight and because of that her body is aching. She was once a “one drink on a Friday night person” now she finds she has two glasses of wine each night to relax. She is beginning to dread going to work each morning and takes as much time off as possible. Talking with her doctor Emily realises how physically tired she has become.

She seems unable to get enough sleep, even when she sleeps for hours on the weekend. Early nights no longer seem to help her feel refreshed. She is exhausted and finds that she is also suffering from depression. Her doctor is concerned knowing the stressful work that is Emily’s job. He suggests she take a break from work and writes out a medical certificate for her to take a week off work due to stress. Emily did not realise it, but she had now reached the stage of exhaustion in Selye’s general adaptation syndrome.

When Emily returned from her week off from work she received an email stating that she must receive approval from her manager or team leader regarding any correspondence or action she is considering undertaking for her clients. All letters written to advocate on a client’s behalf must now have the approval of her manager or team leader.

Considering Emily and her colleagues have worked autonomously for a number of years without such infringements; Emily decides to question her colleagues. She finds out they have not received the same sanctions. Again she wonders why this request is made of her when she is more experienced and qualified than many other staff members and her manager.

Again she approached her manager and to enquire if she has somehow offended or upset her manager, and again Emily is told that she had done nothing, and her manager’s change of attitude is her own faulty perception. Emily knows this is not true.

Emily’s stress levels are now extremely high. She no longer is feeling the benefit of having a break from work. She is not sure how she is going to be able to comply by the latest demands from her manager. She does not have time to contact her manager or team leader for confirmation and approval of each correspondence or procedure she designs and discusses with her clients.

Emily realised that she will not be able to complete her usual day’s workload if these sanctions are to be observed, so she now understands that if she is unable to complete a normal “day of work” she could be deemed incompetent. Finally, Emily now understands what the last six to twelve months have been about.

Since Emily began working for the organisation, she has always received positive feedback on her personal appraisals. While Emily was always pleased to hear this, she often felt that it was easy to do her job well, and with a positive attitude because she loved what she was doing. In many ways, it was her dream job and she took pride in knowing that she did it to the best of her ability.

However, since the workplace changes, her work has been consistently criticised. The rules were often changed without notice and then she was reprimanded for not performing tasks that once were not a part of her job. When she took responsibility for buying her own office equipment to make her work easier, her manager criticised her.

Emily felt she could not do anything right. She loved her job, but felt she could no longer continue receiving criticism or sarcastic comments for doing her best. The feedback she received from her colleagues and other mangers was that they were pleased with her efforts. She had even received a certificate congratulating her for an excellent effort, only twelve months prior.

Emily spent a long time reflecting on what had happened over the last few months. She came to realise that because opportunities for promotion were not previously available, Emily’s flawless work had not been a threat to anyone, and she had not experienced workplace harassment. But now opportunities for advancement were becoming available and her colleagues were feeling the pressure.

Emily knew she could not continue without the positive support of her manager. She also knew that her physical and mental health were beginning to suffer. Emily finally resigned, feeling she had no alternative. As the realisation of the past twelve months began to set in, so did the accompanying depression. She felt guilt and shame for her inadequacy to cope with the situation, and knowing that she had let down her family and must find other employment soon.

How to Help the Client Overcome Harassment

Every client that experiences workplace harassment reacts in their own way, so counselling strategies must be tailored to suit the individual client. The following is a guide to some of the aspects that counsellors may find useful.

Field (2001) explains that three important aspects are usually missing from the lives of people who are experiencing (or have experienced) workplace harassment:

(1) Hope (that they will get over the pain of workplace harassment)
(2) Trust (an inability to trust their own judgment and to learn to trust others again)
(3) Confidence (to do what will be necessary for them to overcome the hurtful past).

Thus, it can be helpful in counselling to begin to work toward increasing the client’s sense of worth and restoring self-confidence. Strategies that may be beneficial in the short-term include, positive feedback journals (or logbooks), cognitive behavioural strategies (including challenging core beliefs and cognitions) as well as positive behaviour strategies (such as encouraging clients to learn a new skill or take up a hobby – all contributing to a sense of achievement).

Additionally, counselling should focus on re-establishing the client’s sense of hope and positive view of the future. Clients can be encouraged to imagine their ideal future and begin mapping strategies and pathways for achieving this. Role playing exercises may be helpful for clients seeking to enhance their communication and negotiation skills.

Additionally, many clients may find it useful to employ reflective strategies, such as journaling and discussion, in order to facilitate the integration and processing of their experience.

Toolkit for Clients: Click here to download AIPC’s “Coping with Workplace Harassment” life effectiveness guide. This guide explores a range of options and recommendations for clients who are experiencing bullying at work. Case studies and examples are included.

Legal Issues: It can be helpful to clients if counsellors are able to provide them with information regarding their rights in relation to the law and typical organisational policies.

States in Australia vary in relation to workplace harassment laws and those behaviours considered to be workplace harassment. However, because the damaging effects (on both the individual and the business) are now being recognised, governments and corporations are putting strategies in place to reduce the phenomenon.

Most state governments have introduced workplace guidelines with information, and suggestions for organisations to implement and/or change according to their individual requirements.

Generally the procedures suggested are:

  • Awareness
  • Induction for workers
  • Induction for all supervisors

Awareness is brought about in organisations by distributing to all staff the company’s policies on workplace harassment. Through the distribution of anti-harassment and anti-bullying pamphlets and posters, an organisation is making a strong statement that it will not tolerate harassment.

Above all, each organisation must have in place a structured process for dealing with workplace harassment, and for this to be effective all staff must be informed of the process.

When counsellors are working with clients who have experienced workplace harassment, often the client is either not aware of the workplace procedure, or they have approached the relevant person/people and the process is not effective. Many individuals experiencing workplace harassment do not report it due to fear of retaliation from the perpetrator. Organisational strategies are often inefficient regarding workplace harassment because it can be difficult to prove.

Two of the main problems that individuals who have experienced workplace harassment acknowledge are (1) that their colleagues (who have witnessed an incident) will not act as a witness against the perpetrator and (2) legislation states that workplace harassment is does not include “reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way” (QLD Department of Employment and Industrial Relations).

Therefore, workplace harassment does not include management actions taken to transfer, demote, discipline, redeploy, retrench or dismiss a worker if they are conducted in a reasonable manner. This can leave much scope for abuse.

The controversy lies in what is a reasonable manner. Workers subjected to ongoing victimisation and harassment (as with Emily) will have difficulty proving that her manager was actually targeting her, as her manager will be able to say that Emily was not productive and the disciplinary procedures were simply a strategy of assisting her to improve her performance. If Emily has not kept evidence such as a journal or copies of emails or does not have colleagues willing to speak as a witness, she may have difficulty proving that her manager was deliberately targeting her.

A counsellor can assist their client to process the emotional and psychological issues that may have arisen due to workplace harassment. But just as a client needs to visit their GP regarding the physical symptoms they may be experiencing, so too a client must meet with a solicitor who specialises in the complicated area of industrial relations law to gain advice of what legal avenues are available to them.


  1. Carlson, N., Heth, C.D., Miller, H., Donahoe, J.W., Buskist, W., Martin, G. N., (2007). Psychology: The science of behaviour (6th Ed.). Boston, USA: Allyn and Bacon-Pearson.
  2. Clarke, J. (2007). The pocket psycho. Australia: Random House.
  3. Clarke, J. (2005). Working with monsters. Australia: Random House.
  4. Field, T. (1996). Bully in sight. Oxfordshire, UK: Success Unlimited.
  5. Poilpot-Rocaboy, G. (2006). Bullying in the Workplace: A Proposed Model for Understanding the Psychological Harassment Process, Research and Practice in Human Resource Management, 14(2), 1-17.
  6. Queensland Department of Employment and Industrial Relations. What is workplace harassment? Retrieved 2nd November 2007 from: