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Summary of Findings from the Pilot Questionnaire for Families of People who believe they have suffered unjust/unnecessary suspensions, and/or bullying and harassment and/or false allegations at work.

People who believe they have been unnecessarily and/or unjustly suspended from work, and/or bullied and harassed and had false allegations made against them, know from personal experience the damaging effect of these horrendous events.

But what of their family members?  How does it affect them and how do they cope?  Do they have any suggestions for preventing or improving processes to change these situations?

In order to find out, relatives of members of the Dignity At Work Now group (DAWN) based in Birmingham, and relatives of contacts through the web site www.suspension-nhs.org were invited to respond to a pilot questionnaire asking these questions.   This is a very small study which I hope can be replicated to check its findings.

12 people responded to the pilot questionnaire of whom three were husbands, three were wives, three were sons and three were daughters.  What follows is a summary of their responses with a conclusion.

To maintain confidentiality and for clarity, the person experiencing the bullying and/or suspension is described as ‘the family member’.

The replies were as follows:-

Question 1. Can you remember how you felt when you first found out what had happened to your family member? 

Replies

Very strong feelings were described:-

Shock, anger, disbelief, powerlessness, helplessness, devastation.
The most commonly mentioned emotions were disbelief (8 times but implied in other comments), anger (7 times but implied in other comments) and shock (5 times but implied in other comments).
A few people mentioned feeling confused, with one person finding it offensive and another having a sense that the organisation had gone mad.

Question 2. As your family member went through the processes of their particular situation, did you experience other feelings?     

If yes, please would you write about them.

Replies

The feelings experienced as time passed were related to events – anger at the failure of organisations and unions to follow procedures, the injustice of it all, the sense of exclusion from it all and therefore helplessness, not knowing what to say, distress at not being able to help, worry about the effects of it all on the family and its finances, a sense of bereavement, sadness. 
Anger was the most commonly mentioned emotion – 6 times and implied in other responses. 
2 people made additional comments that as they completed this questionnaire they had been reminded of the severe trauma they had suffered during the whole lengthy process, how no one knows what they suffered and how difficult they had found this now.  
Where the family member was the main breadwinner and lost their jobs for whatever reason, 2 spouses mentioned the loss of income and its detrimental impact on the family and themselves.  

 

Question 3a) . Was there anyone you could talk to about your feelings? If yes, who was this?

Replies

The people listed as being helpful or as being possible people to speak to, were family and friends, including partners. 

 b) Was that helpful?

4 people found it helpful to talk with others.
1 person responded that s/he had people to talk to if s/he had wished.
3 people found it partly helpful to talk to others but felt disloyal or unable to be completely honest or unable to trust others now.
4 people found it unhelpful or impossible because it ‘brought it all back’ or because others had no idea or understanding or because it would be too stressful for the person listening.

 

Question 4. If you found the situation stressful, what was your way of coping? 

Replies

3 people mentioned being supportive as a coping mechanism,
2 kept off the subject unless it was raised,
2 people mentioned keeping to routines and keeping busy, with work an escape for one of them,
other coping mechanisms mentioned were - going to the gym, getting away alone,  prayer, believing that the truth would finally emerge, having a good moan and shout. 
1 person described being made physically ill by the stress and 1 person found the Samaritans very helpful on a couple of occasions.

 

Question 5a) Did you feel there was anything you could do to help your family member? If yes, what was it?

Replies

·         People felt they had helped by listening (mentioned 5 times and implied in some other responses), giving support (mentioned 5 times and implied in some other responses), giving advice (mentioned 4 times and implied in some other responses), giving practical help such as taking the family member to the GP’s or meetings with employers, and being patient and encouraging.  1 person described feeling useless none the less and 1 person, that it was taking over their lives.

 

b) If you didn’t feel able to help them, was there a reason for that and if yes, what was it?

5 people made no reply about not being able to help. 
2 people felt that help had been given but also doubted whether it had actually been helpful.
7 people (including the 2 previous people) gave reasons why they hadn’t felt able to help their family member. 

These were:-

they were unable to change the situation or stop it (2 comments),
s/he felt it would embarrass the family member to try and counsel him/her nor did s/he understand what was happening, whilst the union and solicitor seemed to be making the situation worse,
s/he felt too angry and upset,
too far away,
there was no recognition of the families’ rights or role to play,
the family member ‘wouldn’t listen’. 

 

6. Do you have any ideas or suggestions about how the situation can be improved for family members? 

If yes, please write your ideas or suggestions here.

Replies

2 people felt it was impossible to change the situation though 1 of them suggested going to see the GP, presumably for support, and the other, for the family member to get out of the organisation.

The remaining 10 people each made suggestions.

Information:-

·         A leaflet showing the scale of the injustice and where to get help (suggested by 2 people), this information to be put on the internet as well.

·         More publicity and discussions to raise awareness, including details of support groups like DAWN.

·         Provide information specifically for the family.

An independent and impartial organisation to write a pamphlet ‘So you’re a family member of someone being bullied at work – here’s how the next few years of your family’s life will probably be affected……’ to help ease through the process, pointing out pitfalls to avoid, myths surrounding these issues, sources of reliable information, case studies with good practice.

 

Suggestions for ways to change the system:-

Organisations  to investigate the problem fully before suspending someone as the complaint may be of a malicious and vindictive nature and found to be unfounded.
End pointless and futile suspensions and check suspension is the correct action before suspending; only suspend at board level.
Limit suspension times to 4 weeks (a second person proposed one week)
Provide speedier help for those undergoing the experience of bullying etc.
Ensure the organisations have to follow a fail safe process.
Union reps should invite family members to engage with the process as early as possible; family members to act as chaperone/advocates.  They should also be able to act as witnesses in internal proceedings, as well as any tribunals etc.

             

Support and healing mechanisms                               

·         Professional counselling should be provided.

·         To make support available from others who had experienced similar treatment and so understood.  This would alleviate the sense of isolation.

Some form of respite/distraction for the family member to ‘take them away’ from it so that they can still be part of family life even if work life is awful.
Bullies should be made to face up to their ‘victims’ including the family.
Families should be compensated in some way for the time and grief they go through, and receive an apology.

 

Conclusions

It appears from this small pilot study, that families may suffer very strong emotions as much as their family member.   Moreover, the emotions are very similar such as anger and powerlessness, disbelief and shock.
As time passed, the situation became even more difficult to bear, waiting for resolution of the problems.  This was particularly so for spouses and especially where there were attendant financial pressures. 
Anger was the abiding emotion.
Finding support for themselves had been a problem for over half the respondents, with a third finding it impossible, and half the respondents felt they had also been unable to help their family member.
Most of the respondents had suggestions to make about preventing or improving these situations, which would help others or give better support.

 These findings are not generalisable because of the size of the study group.  However, this pilot study has given an insight into something of the trauma that may be caused by unjust and unnecessary suspensions, bullying and harassment and false allegations at work, for the rest of the family, not only for the family member.

It has also shown how the family feels there is very little information and support for them.

It has given a hint of their own bravery and courage, helping their family member through the trauma whilst suffering their own devastation.

It is hoped that the suggestions they have made, will become realities, especially the prevention of these life-threatening, life-changing injustices.

 

Postscript

I am very grateful to the people who completed the questionnaires, sometimes at considerable cost to themselves

This questionnaire has been placed on the website with an invitation for others to complete it, to increase the level of knowledge, for the sake of the families who are the silent and hidden sufferers in these dire situations.

 

Julie Fagan 12.2.05