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Is bullying or harassment just a school or workplace health and safety concern?

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Recent media coverage on bullying has focused on tragic cases like that of Amanda Todd, the British Columbia teen who ended her life after years of bullying. But the analysis and discussions over what we can do to prevent bullying has not been extended beyond the school system to a broader community: the workplace.
A simple Google search shows that news stories on bullying in the workplace amount to less than a tenth of the volume of stories on bullying in schools. The relative silence on the issue of workplace bullying is somewhat surprising. Does the incidence of bullying dramatically decline after graduation? Maybe. However, there may be other explanations worth exploring.
 
One possibility relates to a societal tolerance or resignation that there is nothing that can be done about about workplace bullying. In 2008, WorkSafeBC did a survey on workplace bullying. While more than 54 percent of the 800 British Columbians surveyed agreed with the statement: “workplace bullying is a serious problem in British Columbia today," a much higher percentage (62 percent overall, 66 percent of women) said: "workplace bullying is an inevitable part of life in the workplace."
 
Another explanation may be the words we use to discuss this issue. A colleague and I looked at claims for workplace stress not involving a single traumatic event. What we found was a tendency for women to use the term “bullying” to describe behaviours male victims might describe as “harassment.” The legal term may be “vexatious conduct”; HR records might speak of “personality conflicts”; a colloquial definition might include “hazing” for acts that are more physical or “razzing” for more verbal ones. Perhaps the diversity of language is masking a problem that is much larger than media reports suggest.
 
Whatever words we use, the issue of bullying and harassment is not confined to the K-12 education system. Workers’ compensation systems are increasingly recognizing workplace injuries arising from bullying/harassment. This is not to say bullying is on the increase; it's an affirmation that workplace bullying and harassment can have serious consequences for the victim. It's also a wakeup call for all workplace participants to pay attention and stop thinking about bullying as something that stops when you reach 18 years of age.
 
The issue of workplace bullying and associated disability due to stress or mental injury comes up more often than any issue of traumatic injury or specific occupational disease from conference audiences I present to and from participants in courses I facilitate. Those who specialize in DM and RTW for employers almost universally report situations within their experience that meet the definition of bullying. They also report the challenges they face in accommodation and RTW in these cases. Having a policy that says, “thou shalt not bully” is not enough. A growing number of companies now carry out risk assessments, craft and enforce corporate policies against harassment, and provide training on the issue. Whether or not such actions are mandated by law or policy, they're the right things to do.

Acts of bullying or harassment extend beyond school and work environments. Playgrounds, sports venues, and even streetscapes are locations where the victimization of individuals occurs. Eliminating bullying and harassment in school settings and the workplace may not solve the greater societal issue but it is a step toward changing the perception that bullying is inevitable.

 

About Terry Bogyo:

Terry BogyoTerry is the Director of Corporate Planning and Development for WorkSafeBC. His current responsibilities include environmental scanning, strategic planning and inter-jurisdictional comparisons.

Terry says of himself: I am a student of workers’ compensation systems. Many years ago I discovered two things about this area. First, workers’ comp and OH&S are of vital importance to people. Protecting, caring for and providing compensation to workers are important, noble and morally responsible endeavors. The second thing I learned was that no matter how much I knew about workers' comp/OH&S, there was always so much more to learn. This is an endlessly challenging area of study. My purpose, therefore, is not to lecture, but to reflect on the ideas and issues that are topical in this area... and to invite others to share in a learning experience. By adding your knowledge and insights, others with similar interests can participate in the discovery and study of this important domain.

His blog is "Workers' Compensation Perspectives".

Subscribe to comments feed Comments (2 posted)

avatar
blackcat 12/29/2012 03:29:35
I too was a student of workers compensation. After experiencing workplace bullying in a government office,I am now in a much better place depate the topic.
The prescription of medication was the only thing that brought relief from the physical complaints that obviously had psychological origin. In the early stages, it is most important for the victim to have the support and resources of the workplace (OHS and HR)and then a health professional.
Whilst I have trouble functioning at work and home, I feel concerned about the need to acknowledge the distress, my inability to cope and feeling of vulnerability if I return to my workplace. At this time, if the bully is still there I won't consider a return any time soon.
I can't fight, push back or resist any longer so I will take my cocktail of medication and see what happens. Interestingly, the cocktail consists of Effexor, Cymbalta, Avanza and Seroquel to keep my anxiety and stress under control. I am scared the depression from the lowest moments of the experience will return.
I thank my psychiatrist who I will call Dr C who has helped me to find some meaning to the experience, bad as it was, and to get ot the point of rationally deciding about whether to sue the bully and the organisation for breaches under the occupational health safety legislation. Right now that is an option after I get my health and wellbeing back.
avatar
Maxwell Pinto 02/13/2013 18:36:03
Targets, victims and witnesses of bullying have a few avenues to pursue (as compared with victims of sexual harassment) when subject to repeated and obvious acts of aggression, spreading malicious rumours, excluding someone socially or from certain projects, undermining or impeding a person’s work or opinions, insulting a person’s habits, attitudes, or private life and intruding upon a person’s privacy. Others include being rude or belligerent, destroying property, assaulting an individual, or setting impossible deadlines. Although bullying is recognized as detrimental to occupational health, there is little political or corporate interest in stopping it.

In schoolyard bullying, the bullies are children, whose behaviour is controlled by the leaders, i.e. the school administration. In workplace bullying, however, the bullies are often the leaders themselves, i.e., the managers and supervisors. Therefore, reporting a bully to the HR dept, for example, may expose the target/victim to the risk of even more bullying, slower career advancement, or even termination, on the grounds of being a “troublemaker!”.

Workplace bullying has severe consequences, including reduced effectiveness and high employee turnover. An employee who suffers any physical or psychiatric injury as a result of workplace bullying can confront the bully, report the bully to the HR department or to the trade union, if any, or bring a claim of negligence and/or a personal injury claim against both the employer and the abusive employee as joint respondents in the claim. If the law does not persuade employers to deal with workplace bullying, the economic reality will persuade them. Training sessions can help when combined with a confidential reporting structure, but it is difficult to alter the basic nature of some individuals, who may need counselling.

Maxwell Pinto, Business Author
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