Agréée Agence Régionale de Santé (ARS)
ADELI professionnels de la santé : n°759326028
Qualité Psychologue/Psychothérapeute

Therapy for victims of harassment in the work place


8e International Conference of Workplace Bullying, Copenhague, Danemark, juin 2012

Special Interest Groups : Therapeutic Practioners

Therapy for victims of harassment in the work place

Christiane KreitlowClinical Psychologist-PsychotherapistParis – France

The provision of care for victims of (moral) harassment in the work place requires a specific therapeutic approach.   This is because of:

- the entanglement of the suffering and the destructiveness caused by the violence

- the origin of the pain and damage caused to the victim by another person- the specific nature of the environment (the work place) and the different factors that it brings into play in enabling the harassment

The therapy must address the patient's symptoms and offer appropriate treatment, the main ongoing goal being to free the victim from the harmful influence of his/her aggressor.

Harassment is psychological torture inflicted by one or more persons on another. It affects and damages the victim's person as a whole, offending his/her dignity and self-esteem. Ethical issues (questions and answers) are de facto at the heart of a therapeutic approach.

* To build the therapy, the therapist must act as :

-        a comforting and sympathetic listener (caring about the patient) -        an effective mediator (providing care for the patient) 

The therapist's task is to offer a reassuring environment. Accommodating, even embracing the suffering is just as important as committing activeopposition to its causes. The therapist assumes the position of an ally, fortuitously interceding between the patient and his/her reminiscence of the aggressions (the aggressor). The therapist effectively fulfils a buffer role, while creating a space with the patient in which to jointly work something outtogether

 * In this sense, the aim of the therapy is to foster a guaranteed relationship of trust (reducing the sense of solitude) providing a platform on which to fortify the patient's self-esteem. This involves:

-        unconditionally acknowledging the facts and acts undergone -        reassuring the patient -        enhancing and supporting the areas where the patient is strong 

These are the first stages that enable the patient to stand back from his/her experience

* A detailed analysis of how/when/where the harassment started plays a predominant role.

This :

-        puts a name on the violence and enables an understanding of the mechanisms to which the victim was subjected. -        identifies the harassment as a process dissociates the symptoms and the person and identifies them as consequences of malevolent acts

The aim of the analysis is to deconstruct the manoeuvres to which the victim was subjected in order to loosen up and dilute the effects.

This involves :

-        identifying (i.e. singling out) the aggressor, his/her person(s) -        establishing whether or not the aggressor had malignant intentions or other hostile motives (e.g. subconscious) and distinguish them -        disentangling and identifying the processes (perverse and/or other acts, gestures and words) and motivations -        detecting and understanding the starting point of the harassment process and how this then developed -        pinpointing the toxic suggestions -        seeking to identify what the aggression process was targeting in the victim's person

* The effort here is above all intellectual. This is because thought is still the most effective weapon in response to violence.It may also be advantageous for the therapist to temporarily lend the patient his or her capacity to analyse. This can re-establish order in the mental confusion created by the harassment manoeuvres and restore the patient's faculties of discernment. Laying out the facts objectively, putting things back in context, punctuating the facts and events can contribute to assuaging anxiety and doubt and reduce guilt feelings (about having some share of responsibility or failing to react). Further, intellectual understanding plays a part in reducing the victim's over-sensibility and gradually bringing closure. This work cannot be accomplished without emotion. It is in fact an outlet for experienced and residual emotions. The therapist's task is to stem the tide of emotion as it appears, name the emotions and thus transform them into feelings. If feelings of guilt and shame can be persistent, it is important to connect them to the violence undergone and identify them as consequences. To combat these feelings, the therapist must remind the patient who the guilty party really is. In all circumstances, the therapist must seek to produce more dynamic emotions and feelings, stimulating the victim's anger and revolt against the aggressor.The effort is all geared to achieving the same goal: to release the patient from the aggressor by gradually giving him/her a sense of control of the events and their effects. In this sense and depending on the situation, it is important to jointly imagine and decide the protective measures (within the patient and external), put the aggressor at a distance, and, where applicable, instigate legal proceedings. These decisions may change as the therapy progresses.

* Harassment in the work place always takes place in a precise environment. Hence the need to locate and clarify:

-        circumstances and collaterals (reorganisation, new manager, merger, etc.) -        the management methods, the tone -        the general atmosphere -        any track record of harassment This analysis broadens the context and casts the victim in a role other than just focal point for the aggressor. Still with the aim of contextualising feelings that can continue to potentially undermine the victim, and in order to restore a sense of dignity (self-esteem and self-respect), the therapy should not hesitate to place the malediction on the ethical and moral plane:

-        by discussing the facts from these viewpoints -        by questioning, from this angle, the role and position of witnesses (colleagues), management and the organisation The fact is that the muteness of direct and indirect witnesses of harassment exacerbates the damaging impact.   Victims undergo the unhappy experience of disappointment, even betrayal and abandonment that all leave a bitter taste of disenchantment. Losing the support of others, members of the close circle and colleagues, when this is undoubtedly most necessary, inflicts pain that is no different from physical suffering. (cf. Geoff Mac Donald and Mark Leary "Why does social exclusion hurt? The relationship between social and physical pain", Psychological Bulletin, 2005, 131, 202).

* Harassment clearly raises the question of humanity. It unequivocally highlights the vulnerability that is common to us all. The issue of humanity must be a thread running through and echoing the therapy. Here, the questions raised and the suggested answers will be pivotal in reviving hope and leading the strengthened self to rejoin society on an equal footing. Introducing the dimension of humanity can enlarge the context and relocate the events on a more conceptual level. Ethical questioning (ethics being inseparable from self-esteem) contributes to creating an effective barrier against the feeling of exclusion. It opens a door through which the patient can return to a place within the human community that has been denigrated and denied. We should remind ourselves that humanity always addresses issues of good and evil, victim and aggressor. Thus, it is useful to be aware that these roles are always potentially interchangeable

In this perspective, it is beneficial for the therapist to approach, with the patient, any conscious and unconscious roles played in the advent of the harassment and any behaviour on the patient's part that might have favoured this.

* Therapy can be expressed metaphorically as "laying the floor", providing a firm grounding on which the patient can stand up again.   The therapeutic relationship is the opportunity to:

- revitalise the experience of meeting and in so doing rebuild lucid confidence (in relationships with others)

The therapist must be capable of sincerity, transparency and flexibility, have no hesitation in being on stage too, creating a sense of complicity, or grasping opportunities for joyous surprise. The therapist should activate the imagination and enable the creation of protective metaphors, at all times assuming the position of coach and, with the consent of the patient, experimenting new postures (strategies). The programme includes learning to listen to oneself, identify/locate, set limits and say "no", out of self respect.

By the same token, while respecting the patient's values, it is productive to query them and put them to the test. The aim is to bolster values in order to substantiate decent self-assertion.

* With regard to traumatic damage (psychic intrusion), the recourse to therapeutic hypnosis (with the patient's consent) proves to be highly beneficial. In general, it is an extension of the intellectual work and reinforces, even deepens its positive impact. Therapeutic hypnosis brings the body into play. Thus, by working with and on the body, the action of hypnosis significantly reduces traumatic repercussions and suffering (pain.

The sessions favour:

-        relaxation (regulation of the emotions) -        more subtle contact with self, the patient retaking possession of self
(re-association) and stabilising the self as platform -        disentanglement from the aggressor (various techniques are used to separate the victim from the aggressor and check the results) -        re-mobilisation of resources -        targeted actions to address symptoms (phobia, anxiety, depression, etc.) -        experiments with a range of situations (in the past, the present and the future)  

Sessions respecting the patient's needs - silent exploration or more directed approaches.

Subsequently: As in any traumatic situation, the experience of moral harassment breaks the flow of time into a before and an after. It is the therapist's task to clear the path and re-establish the flow. To heal the wounds, it is vital for the patient to be able to include the event in his/her own story. Ideally the harassment should retrospectively become an episode in his/her life that has enabled maturity and a readiness to move on to new things.

* Future: No victim is just a victim!An aim of the therapy is to open up new perspectives for the patient and, where necessary, monitor them. Separation, reintegration or job conversion, in other words, different ways for the patient to recompose his or her life, are themes for jointly working out possibilities and conditions while jointly examining the issue of their viability. This is about working together to identify singularities, values, tastes and aspirations. It is about developing new projects. It is rare in fact that new paths do not emerge!

* Note: moral harassment restricts the space within which the victim can live and move. It is important that the therapist offer the patient a real, enlarged and flexible psychic and mental space within which he/she can rediscover freedom of movement.

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