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Home > News4Stews > How To Deal With Bullying On-board

How To Deal With Bullying On-board

It is that time in the season when everyone is getting tired and over worked; over-heated – with soaring temperatures in the Med it creates extra stress on the body – and still a long way to go before you can relax.  This is the time when a person’s worst traits can come to the fore and when bullying can become an issue as we struggle to cope.  Of course bullying can happen at any time but as stress increases your nervous system goes out of balance and the adrenal system produces the fight-or-flight response.  The bully will fight and the victim will take flight.

The Maritime Labour Convention 2006 states that:-

  • Every seafarer has the right to a SAFE and secure workplace that complies with safety standard standards.
  • Every seafarer has a right to DECENT working and living conditions on board ship.
  • Every seafarer has a right to health protection, medical care, welfare measures and other forms of SOCIAL PROTECTION.

The UK employment law definition makes a clear distinction “harassment is 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.”

Bullying contravenes all of the above and should never be accepted onboard at any time. Recognising bullying at all levels is the first step in stopping it happening and understanding how it affects an individual will help to raise awareness within your crew.

An adult bully has had many years of practice and can be very cunning in the way they bully and the tactics they use but what all bullies have in common is they consciously and repeatedly set out to hurt another person.  Sexual, physical or verbal bullying is relatively easy to recognise but the subtle, insidious and sly methods used by some can be difficult to identify until it has become a pattern.

A physical bully uses intimidation, threat and harassment as a first step.  This can also be by “personal space violation, physical space entrapment, physical size domination and numerical domination (ganging up on someone)”. Verbal bullying usually consists of constant negative judgment and criticism; hostile teasing; insults; threats and shaming.  Racist, sexist or homophobic language also falls into this category.

The more dangerous types of bullying fall into the tangible/material bullying which is the use of formal power or authority where someone uses their advantage to dominate and control the victim by manipulation. Covert bullying, which is done by a passive-aggressive personality type is where a person behaves normally on the surface and in front of others but uses subtlety to sabotage someone else’s happiness and well-being, even their success.  They use negative gossip, jokes at someone else’s expense, sarcasm, condescending eye contact, facial expressions or gestures as well as ridicule to cause embarrassment and insecurity which undermines their victim.

The effects of bullying can be excruciating painful for the victim and can leave them feeling traumatised.  The mental cruelty can be devastating and long-lasting, leaving a person feeling insecure, isolated, filled with anxiety; depressed as well as causing sleep problems; headaches, general aches and pains and stomach problems.  Long term bullying can cause eating disorders, mood disorders, thyroid and gastrointestinal problems, elevated blood pressure and at its worst, self-harming.  It also affects work by causing low self-esteem; trouble making decisions; lack of concentration and other performance issues which in turn could cause safety issues depending on the position held.

Life at sea and servicing our owners and charter guests demands that we perform at our best at all times.  Our lives and those of others can depend on our actions therefore a bully puts us all at risk.  A recent FB post on Palma Yacht Crew has highlighted just how prevalent bullying is in the industry.  With over 300 comments and a huge variety of responses, it also brought my attention to cyber bullying which has become all too common and very sad to see on PYC.

How do you know you are being bullied?

If you feel bad after interaction with another crew member and this happens regularly, you are likely being bullied.  If you feel anxious when you have to deal with them or even being in their presence.  Do you feel humiliated or belittled; do you feel afraid; are you reluctant to socialise with your crew; do you fear confrontation; do you feel sad or hopeless?  You may also feel angry but whatever your feelings are, eventually you will feel exhausted.  Bullying makes you feel threatened and when threatened you are in a state of constant alert which will wear you down.

So if you are a victim of bullying, what are your options?

Firstly, you need to validate your feelings and acknowledge you are being bullied. If you feel it, it is likely to be real and even if you think it is not affecting you, unconsciously it will be.

  • Be sure to practice good self-care; eat well, try to sleep well, take exercise and engage in stress relieving activities if possible.
  • Limit your exposure to the bully if possible.
  • Do not react to the bully – bullies feed on getting a reaction from their victim.
  • Set your boundaries and stick to them.
  • Try to find support from your fellow crew by confiding in someone you trust.
  • Keep a record of what is happening to you.
  • Practise positive self-talk which helps maintain your self-confidence.
  • Report the bullying to a superior if this is possible.
  • Try to expose the bully by having others witness what is happening.

Bullies pick on people whom they perceive as being weaker and many bullies are cowards so call them out on their behaviour. The best strategy is to change how you respond and confront the bully as soon as possible.  Take a stand in the simplest way possible by responding with replies such as; ‘that is unwelcome’; ‘that is inappropriate’; ‘that is unprofessional’ and then walk away.  You could ask them if they mean to sound passive-aggressive? Remember that a bully’s bad behaviour is his or her responsibility and not yours; your responsibility is to protect yourself from the intended hurt. None of the bullying has anything to do with you; it is all about the bully’s own insecurities.

Having compassion for a bully also goes a long way to understanding what is happening to you.  You could invite them to share their feelings; they may be under a lot of stress themselves or carrying around a lot of anger but it is not your place to try and fix them.  How they behave is a reflection of them and you can choose not to be a victim.  Fear of losing your job or getting a poor reference should not be a barrier to standing up for yourself in a respectful manner so keep developing your self-confidence and surround yourself with caring, supportive people

If things get serious and simple bullying is stepped up; becomes unbearable; gets threatening or in any way abusive; or comes from your Captain, you must report this to the yacht management team or the DPA (Designated Person Ashore).  Should nothing be done by them or there is no management ashore you do have other options.  You can contact either the PYA (Professional Yachting Association) or Nautilus International (a professional union); both organisations who are there to support seafarers and have systems in place to offer some action on your behalf.  They will support you through the process and if necessary can provide you with help identifying whether you are being bullied or not.

No matter who is doing the bullying you are not on your own and there are things that you can do.  You do not have to accept abuse regardless of where it comes from so just say NO to bullying but never return it with more abuse or act out of frustration or anger. Having been subjected to bullying onboard and told to “give as good as I got” I responded by stating that I refused to lower myself to their level. Likewise if you are witness to bullying, do not stand by and do nothing; support your fellow crew; call out the bully and make it known you know they are a bully.

It is up to all of us to take a stand where bullying is concerned and to support our fellow crew members, creating positive work places onboard and to treat each other with respect and kindness.

Hazel Anderson