What is the difference between bullying and harassment? There is no legal definition of bullying. That is why it is difficult to take action.
The bully usually waits until the target is alone to mount attacks, making it difficult to produce evidence beyond a ‘he/she said’ accusation.
Harassment, however, is defined by the Equality Act (2010) as: ‘Unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.’
Where the bullying/harassment relates to a protected characteristic, it might amount to unlawful discrimination. There may also be grounds to bring a claim against the bully and the employer (technically the governing body or trust board) under the Equality Act at an employment tribunal. The average settlement was £13,706 between March 2018-April 2019.
The protected characteristics are: sexual orientation, sex, age, disability, gender re-assignment, marriage/civil partnerships, pregnancy and maternity, race and religion or beliefs.
The revised Ofsted Inspection Framework, effective from September 2019, includes a specific statement about bullying in Leadership and Management: ‘Good (2) ◼ Leaders protect staff from bullying and harassment.’
Ironically, most anecdotal accounts of bullying on social media report leaders are the perpetrators. Due to the disruption caused by Covid-19, there has not been the opportunity to assess the impact of the ‘new’ Ofsted statement on bullying and harassment in schools.
The physical and mental effects of bullying and harassment are:
Chronic fatigue, Repeated illnesses eg colds, flu, high blood pressure, migraine, chest and back pain, Stomach disorders and hormone disturbances, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), thyroid problems, skin disorders, increased risk of heart problems, nail biting or clenching teeth and grinding teeth when asleep.
Panic attacks, sleep disorders, stress, anxiety, depression, poor concentration and poor memory, irritability, obsessive disorders, hypervigilance, mood swings, increased sensitivity, loss of humour, self-medication: alcohol, coffee, anorexia or bulimia, thoughts of self-harm/suicide.
In addition, bullying is often accompanied by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the mental impact of bullying or harassment can last for a long time. Even years.
Making it worse?
What action can the target of bullying/harassment take? The first question you should ask is: ‘Will my taking action make things worse?’ In most, perhaps all, cases of bullying, the answer is almost certainly, ‘No’. Bullies rely on their targets being unwilling to take action in case they bring more suffering upon themselves. They rarely stop and usually escalate when they see that their behaviour is having the desired effect.
- Contact your union.
- Consider counselling or contact Education Support for help (08000 562 561). Phone lines are staffed 24/7 by qualified counsellors.
- Implement the Write it – State it – Let it Go (WWWSLG) method of dealing with unfair treatment (Teach Well Alliance):
- 1. W: Write a statement of the physical and mental impact of being bullied/harassed. Include what you would like to happen next i.e. behaviour to stop.
- 2. W: Write an email to the perpetrator, requesting a meeting.
- 3. W: Once it is scheduled, write your statement in a second email, saying that you would welcome the opportunity to discuss it then.
- 4. Take two copies of the statement to the meeting, in case the perpetrator has ‘forgotten’ their copy.
- 5. S: State your opinion, referring to your statement. Bring the discussion back to your statement if the perpetrator tries to divert it.
- 6. LG: Letting it Go. Email the perpetrator, summarising the meeting and outcome.
- If you are unable to meet the perpetrator alone, ask the school union representative or a friend to accompany you.
- Keep a record of everything that amounts to bullying or harassment.
And if this doesn’t work? Leave the school before you adopt the belief that it is teaching that is making you ill. Fortunately, not all schools are like this. Try one more. You might be happier teaching somewhere else than you ever imagined possible.
Steve Waters is the founder and director of the Teach Well Alliance which supports schools to implement a culture of staff wellbeing and mental health. Free advice on Bullying and Harassment can be found here.