Photo by Katarina Stojanovic

Bullying at KI

Story by Parvin Kumar
Interviewees: Anonymous

 

We spend a great deal of our time here on campus. For most of us, it is a very positive experience, whether it is for work or study. We find dignity and self-respect in what we do. In the process we build good, stable relationships with peers and supervisors alike. However in any place that seems serene on the outset, we must question if this holds true beyond the superficial examination of our social environment. Does KI have an underbelly? What does it look like? In an interest to get a sense of the answers to these questions, the correspondent put up an announcement on an group frequented by Karolinska researchers and students on a popularly used social media platform. It was as follows: “If you have been the victim of harassment or bullying on campus or at work in Karolinska, I’d like to know. I’m doing a small project on some anecdotes of what goes on in Karolinska.”

“Share your story with me”

Firstly a little background on why I chose to ask such the question. In the dark core of the human experience lies our capacity to inflict torment when we have the power. It can be for a means like getting more done with fewer resources or, as in a particularly cruel variant, simply because we can. The enabler is a skew in power relations. A bully is an expert at recognizing leverage and using it to gain control over others to achieve his desired ends. It is unilateral, abusive and often cruel. The 2015 World Health Organization survey on bullying put Sweden as one of the best ranking countries when it comes to bullying and harassment. Less than 1 in 20 Swedish children experience bullying. Scandinavia and Sweden can take pride in our contribution to recognizing, quantifying and dealing with bullying globally. One of the most prolific anti-bullying programmes used in USA was designed by a Swedish professor, Dan Olweus at the University of Bergen, Norway. Bullying does not seem to be a pressing issue in Sweden so what is the need for this investigation?

I’m doing a small project on some anecdotes of what goes on in Karolinska

We only need to ask ourselves this: During our time in Karolinska as students or employees have we not heard of that one story where a colleague got a little too close for comfort? Perhaps somebody experienced burnout from being overworked? Karolinska is a prestigious medical Institution with a plethora of hierarchies within; power structures that enable it to function and take its place as the premiere Medical Sciences Institution of Sweden. Being as such separates it from Swedish Society. We are talking about elites in a high pressure environment. Resources are dealt out strictly onan inanely perceived principle of productivity. That principle which has given us the adage ‘Publish or Perish’. The word perish does after all sum up our primal fears. What could that translate to when taken together with the oft encountered skew in power relations?

I did get a response from a couple of victims. They were all glad to speak about their experiences to somebody. There was one example of workplace sexual harassment and one related to an abusive relationship with a supervisor. It may be a bit of a stretch to group sexual harassment and work place stress under the bullying category. However, my aim was to show how a perceived leverage can be used their ends.

One of the victims was called Amy (not her real name). It had been just days into her new stint at KI. The perpetrator was an exchange student and a medical doctor. Amy was approached by this exchange student everyday with amorous messages. In the course of work he obtained her phone number and then the messages changed from amorous to explicit. While this had greatly upset Amy, the decision to report his behavior was not an easy one to make for her. She was rudely shocked by his behavior and feared for her safety in case he was angered by her. Nonetheless, Amy found the state of matter too disruptive to her peace of mind and she reported the perpetrator to her supervisor. Her supervisor informed her that it was a clear case of sexual harassment and in accordance with KI sexual harassment policy they had to start investigations on the matter. She had saved the explicit text messages and these were handed over to the investigators. The matter was brought up to the dean and the ombudsman. When I heard Amy’s story I was heartened at the response that KI gave to Amy and the perpetrator of harassment. He was fired on the spot when they decided it was in fact sexual harassment.

For me there were striking differences between both the stories I came across

Victoria (not her real name) was a Masters student in Karolinska. She spoke to me about a bullying incident that occurred with her thesis project supervisor. The project suffered from unexpected disruptions and a lack of clear communication between Victoria and her supervisor, her story was one that rang quite familiar to me. Indeed a common problem in academia where outlined outcomes and research goals are confused by poor leadership or execution. In Victoria’s case, during several meetings she would be reduced to tears because her supervisor was extremely rude and often personally attacked her using such words as ‘lazy’ and ‘dull’. It became quite clear by the end of the interview, from her exasperated tone as she recounted some particularly unpleasant meetings and noxious exchanges, that it was good she no longer had that particular working relationship. Victoria had been pushed to her limits by the professor’s behaviour and was not able to cope with the pressure. She was not able to finish her Master’s degree thesis and has instead elected to start working as a programmer at a start-up.

For me there were striking differences between both the stories I came across. One was bullying of a more sexual nature and the other more about the abuse of power. The case related to sexual harassment was perhaps more swiftly dealt with because of the legal structures in place which address such incidents. Perhaps a case of verbal abuse is much more difficult to pin down as one that actually constitutes inequity. The outcomes were also largely different owing to the decisions the victims took with regards to getting support from the relevant authorities. Sweden enjoys a pioneer status in employee and student welfare. It excels in promoting an egalitarian work atmosphere. Workers and students are mandatorily represented by unions who in turn sponsor ombudsmen who investigate maladministration or exposure to inequity. In fact, the word ombudsman was adopted by the English language from its Nordic cousins. The ombudsmen retain a large degree of independence from the institutions they work for, and therefore have no conflict of interest in carrying out their duties toward employees or students exposed to inequity. Karolinska like all Swedish organizations has such structures in place to safeguard its students, researchers and employees. Victoria agreed with me during the con versation that she could have sought more help from relevant channels regarding the difficulties she faced, but such was the effect of her experience that it robbed her of any motivation to seek redress.

One was bullying of a more sexual nature and the other more about the abuse of power

Bullying is a heinous activity which has no place in a modern institution such as Karolinska. However, human nature tends to be self-serving, making it necessary for individuals to remind themselves to regulate their interactions accordingly. In a book intended to communicate his life’s work, Columbia University Professor of Psychology, Walter Mischel, highlights the two systems that are concurrently at work in the human psyche. One that is ‘hot’ and impulsive and the other ‘cool’ and cerebral. People in power often act on ‘hot’ self-serving impulses and often neglect the consequences this might have on their employees or students. Adopting an increasingly cool and cerebral method of leadership could in fact be more effective at getting to the root of the problem which is usually along the lines of investing in greater supervision, communication and clarity. He also writes about the idea where the more we are connected to our future selves, the more we are deterred from taking part in unethical conduct such as bullying. This is mainly because we tend to see that over time the consequences of these actions may in fact catch up with us, that it is not necessarily sustainable or in the true spirit of our imagined selves.

In her book titled Mindset, Carol Dweck, a distinguished Professor of Psychology at Stanford University talks about two predominant mindsets prevalent in society. The fixed mindset predicates that the qualities of a person are fixed or static and that no amount of intervention or effort may improve a situation. The growth mindset is one that embraces intervention, innovation and effort to achieve positive change or growth. The minsets manifest themselves in subtle ways and in the case of bullying she says that it is at the pinnacle of judgement with a high doze of the fixed mindset. Bullying is about judging oneself to be superior to another and thus feeling entitled to treating others badly. Often this may play out in a work setting; bullying can be used to shift the blame of frustrated goals from the leadership to the executive organs of the team. An employer or supervisor with a fixed mindset that judges a student or employee to be of limited caliber or prone to certain mistakes can promote dysfunctional behavior, especially when evoked within a ‘hot’ impulsive self-serving system that resides in our psyche; the outcome can be quite disastrous.

KI has a zero-tolerance policy, such incidents should technically not be happening at all

What I set out to show with this piece was that even in a highly structured, regulated and modern Institution such as Karolinska, bullying and sexual harassment does exist. This study can, by no means, say how much of this is happening in Karolinska but admittedly, this is an observation based on anecdotal evidence. However, taking into consideration that our organization has a zero-tolerance policy, such incidents should technically not be happening at all. What can we do to help? It is prudent to keep in mind that help is there when you need it. There are helplines 24/7 at our disposal whether we are a student, employee or supervisor that can put us in touch with professionals trained to listen and advise us on a good course of action. The supervisors and administrators themselves can be our greatest allies and we should be careful where possible to exhaust all possible channels. We can keep in mind what burnout symptoms are and be astute when they manifest in ourselves and our colleagues. We need to be mindful of the archaic self-serving nature of human beings and modulate our interactions where necessary with an emphasis on a cool and cerebral leadership style. Last but not least, it is crucial to keep in mind that compassion goes a long way in preserving humanity and dignity as well as acting as a social lubricant that improves efficiency and functionality even in professional settings.

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