Frequent tearfulness, anxiety, fearfulness, insomnia and changes in appetite are often first symptoms of workplace stress. My clients who report these symptoms are also somewhat baffled by what could be the cause. They tell me, “I love my job and I’m good at it, so why does it suddenly upset me so much?”

Joan works as a nurse in a local hospital. She came to see me complaining that her panic attacks were getting worse and she was crying most days, unable to cope with a workload that, just a few months previously, had been no problem for her.

Joan said she was intending to build a new house. Her bank manager told her she needed to earn a little extra to afford the loan. Joan’s calculations revealed she could manage the loan if she did an extra four hours of overtime each week.

Overtime was abundantly available; there was a freeze on new hires until December. However, changing her schedule meant that Joan had to reconsider her work/life balance to carve enough time for her family. A colleague agreed to swap shifts with her so she could spend Sundays with her grandkids instead of at work.

Joan approached her clinical coordinator with a reasonable proposal that wouldn’t inconvenience the hospital’s smooth running.

Her boss, Lilliane, refused her request, even though she had recently swapped other employees’ shifts and given them overtime. She blatantly favored certain nurses and made vague excuses why she couldn’t accommodate Joan.

By the time Joan came to see me, she had tearfully accepted her lot, but it meant a decrease in her quality of life. She had to postpone her building project because the overtime she wanted was denied. She also had to give up reclaiming her Sundays with family, which meant she only saw them once a month.

Joan felt trapped, stuck, and as if her life were outside her control. Additionally, she suddenly developed a phobia of driving that limited her scant freedom even more. She was shocked to find herself helpless, weak and lacking in energy, when she’d previously considered herself resilient, resourceful and independent.

I suggested to Joan that she was exhibiting typical symptoms related to workplace bullying, which shocked her. She had no idea why anyone would target her since she went out of her way to do a good job, was always available to run extra errands for her boss, and was mild-mannered, quiet and inoffensive. Surely there had to be a more logical explanation?

Targets of workplace bullying are often so shocked by hostile behavior that they don’t figure out they’re being bullied for six to 18 months, by which time their mental and physical health have irrevocably broken down.

It is important to catch workplace bullying early. I define workplace bullying as repeated, unreasonable behavior by one or more people that creates a risk to the health and safety of the targets at whom the behavior is directed.

Once you realize what’s going on, there are five things you can do to reclaim your power:

  1. Create a workplace bullying timeline Gather all evidence of workplace bullying you can find and put it into a timeline. This includes all emails, policy and procedure documents, witness statements, recordings and every other item you can think of in an exhaustive paper trail. Keep any hard copies away from your workplace.
  2. Record hostile events Start writing down all the incidents you can remember where you were the target of upsetting, unreasonable behavior. If you can’t recall exact dates, approximate. Just record the behavioral facts and not your judgments, assumptions or theories about the facts. Expect this task to take several weeks. It’s OK to take your time, just get it done.
  3. Set up a Dropbox account Use a new (Yahoo, Hotmail or Gmail) email address and password that only you know, then use it to set up an anonymous Dropbox account where you can store all your evidence in the cloud. Make sure not to access this account at work, and don’t leave an evidence trail even on your devices at home.
  4. Gather your support team Let your family and friends know what’s happening to you and that they may be called upon to support you. Even more importantly, make sure you have a good GP who’s willing to give you stress leave and initiate a worker’s compensation claim if you need it. Find a good psychologist who understands how to heal from workplace bullying, as well as a good lawyer who will represent you well if you need to take your case to court.
  5. Download my free work stress prevention kit I have prepared a free kit for you to help you implement the previous suggestions step by step. This kit includes two checklists, an evidence form, and an official complaint letter template. ClickYou can get your Work Stress Prevention Kit by clicking here .Ivonnewierink/Bigstock