Workplace bullying harms both employees and employers
Susan has been feeling de-motivated and under appreciated at work since, for reasons as yet unexplained, her boss took away several of her duties. She wonders if her sudden loss of responsibility is related to her refusal to make her boss coffee and pick up his dry cleaning. Debbie was surprised how much she was shaking; that customer had really unnerved her. She knew she had provided the best service possible but nothing reasonable was going to make him happy. He didn’t need to hurl profanities and tell her she didn’t know what she was doing. She wondered if she should tell her boss. Meanwhile, John has been seeking psychological help, unbeknownst to any of his colleagues. He wonders why he has become so stressed and sleep-deprived. Surely, he thinks, it can’t all be because of the coworker who sits in the next workstation, who seems determined to insult and ridicule him and judge his every move.
These are snapshots of workplaces where bullying - a common problem that has only been recognized in recent years - is having a negative impact on individual employees and their organizations. Fortunately, there are positive, proactive steps that can be taken by management and employees to reduce the potential for or eliminate workplace bullying. If Susan, Debbie or John worked in an organization that had a policy against workplace bullying, they would have a clear understanding of what behaviours are considered as “bullying” and would know what resources were available to help them resolve the problems they are having.
According to a July 2004 report by The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions on “Violence, bullying and harassment in the workplace,” there has been an increase in reported incidents of bullying. Twelve million people, representing nine percent of workers in Europe, say they have been subject to bullying over a 12-month period in 2000. The foundation and its partners see this as a serious concern.
What is bullying?
Bullying is a term often used to describe any aggressive misuse or abuse of power. Not to be confused with mere differences of opinion or ordinary conflicts, bullying comprises anything that a reasonable person would consider as victimizing, humiliating, intimidating, undermining or threatening. It can range from gossip and rumours to unwarranted punishment, and from obviously offensive jokes to yelling or profanity.
The consequences are more costly to individuals and organizations than once believed. The victims of bullying can experience stress, depression, reduced self-esteem, self-blame, phobias, sleep disturbances, digestive and musculoskeletal problems, or even post-traumatic stress disorder. The problem, if not dealt with, may cause social isolation, family problems, and financial problems due to absence or discharge from work. Bullying also affects the organization, by increasing absenteeism and staff turnover, reducing productivity, and overall upsetting the peace.
What can be done?
Until very recently Canadian legislation did not specifically address workplace bullying. However, Quebec has introduced legislation to prevent and respond to psychological harassment, including bullying, in the workplace. In other Canadian jurisdictions, the principles outlined in occupational health and safety legislation clearly state that employers have a general duty to protect employees from risks at work, both physical and mental. Some Canadian jurisdictions (British Columbia and Saskatchewan) have enacted specific workplace violence prevention regulations, which may include workplace bullying. Alberta has established a code and Nova Scotia has guidelines on workplace violence prevention.
Organizations can help prevent workplace bullying by stating their commitment to a healthy work culture in a written policy, with clear guidelines of what behaviours are considered unacceptable; by developing an organizational culture with standards and values against bullying; and by dealing with incidents promptly, consistently and with authority.
If you think you are being bullied, discriminated against, victimized or otherwise harassed at work, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) advises that you NOT retaliate, but firmly tell the bully that the behaviour is unacceptable and must stop. Keep a factual journal of events, including names and dates. Keep documentation (including e-mails and memos) that shows the number, the frequency, and especially the pattern of incidents. Report the bullying to your supervisor or the person in your organization responsible for investigating and addressing incidents of workplace bullying. If you feel your health is being affected, seek medical assistance and/or make use of your company's Employee Assistance Program.
Expect the unexpected, for safety's sake
Two recent incidents in Canadian workplaces serve as a reminder to be diligent in identifying, controlling and eliminating occupational hazards.
A chemical release endangered people in and beyond the workplace in a close call on Vancouver Island. The driver of a delivery truck was about to unload an empty shipping container at a water bottling plant. When the driver opened the container doors, he noticed a strong smell but proceeded to back up the truck to the shipping doors of the plant. The container doors were still open.
In the container was a small amount of naphthalene, a very toxic and flammable chemical left over from a previous load. It didn’t take long before several workers in the plant were feeling nauseated, dizzy, and vomiting from having inhaled the naphthalene.
The trucker then drove the container, with its doors now closed, to the local fire hall. But the fire hall was downwind from the container and had to be evacuated. Soon the streets were blocked off, access to the truck was prohibited, and the entire area around the container was declared a contaminated “hot zone.”
Another chemical-related incident in New Brunswick caused a flame from a worker’s cigarette lighter to start a fire. Two workers were hand-washing a vehicle in an automobile garage, using a cleaning solvent. According to the directions, they were supposed to pour the solvent on a cloth and rub it over the surface of the vehicle. Instead, the workers poured the solvent — which was flammable — over the entire vehicle, forming an explosive atmosphere in the poorly-ventilated garage. When a worker lit a cigarette, the vapours were ignited. The resulting explosion and fire quickly grew because the flammable solvent and other chemicals were stored in the same garage bay.
Both of these incidents could have been prevented.
The New Brunswick Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission and the Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia have issued alerts describing these incidents, and are urging workplaces and workers to observe these safety practices when working with chemicals:
- Exercise caution when opening empty shipping containers.
- Check shipping containers for hazardous chemicals, even in residual amounts, before allowing them into enclosed areas like loading bays.
- Never keep more than one dayís supply of chemicals in your immediate work area.
- Store and mix chemicals only in a well-ventilated storage room separate from the work area.
- Anyone who works with or in the vicinity of hazardous chemicals should receive training and instruction on how to work safely with those chemicals.
- Follow manufacturersí instructions.
- Every workplace is required to make available all Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) pertaining to controlled products used in the workplace.
- Learn about the hazards of any new products in the workplace before using them.
- Enforce strict no-smoking policies in areas where flammable chemicals are used or stored, and keep all other ignition sources away from those areas.
- Make sure work areas are adequately ventilated to prevent build-up of flammable vapours.
- Ensure that fire extinguishers are readily available.
- Develop a plan for toxic material emergencies, and post it in work areas.
- Ensure that first aid supplies and a trained first aider are on site at all times.
- In the event of an emergency, immediately call the relevant emergency authorities (fire department, the Ministry of Water, Land, and Air Protection), for specific instructions.
Workplace Wellness Programs - Everyone Benefits
Research has shown that the workplace has a powerful effect on the health of workers. How healthy a person feels affects their job satisfaction and productivity, and in turn, their level of job satisfaction affects their health. Not only does the workplace help determine the health of workers, it provides the natural setting in which to promote health and wellness to help employees achieve their best physical and mental well-being.
Organizations are starting to recognize that contented, healthy employees are valuable assets to the company, and taking an active approach to the health and well being of their employees get results. Happier, healthier workers tend to stay on the job, have fewer absentee days and feel a sense of loyalty to the company. This cuts down on costly employee turnover, recruitment and retraining and improved productivity.
A recent review of selected U.S. workplace health promotion initiatives showed a positive return on investment values ranging up to $8.81 per dollar spent on the program. Canadian workplace health promotion programs cut absenteeism rates to half of the national average, and bring cost benefits of three times return for every dollar invested. These statistics provide powerful arguments for the business case for organizations to invest in health and wellness promotion for their employees.
There are things that can be done to improve employee wellness, and studies show that they work. A wellness program can offer employees information about their health and make it easier for them to make the right choices. As with any policy, it is most successful with the support and commitment of senior management and the involvement of different groups including union/labour, health and safety professionals, your EAP provider and your joint health and safety committee. The program might introduce optional activities such as a lunchtime walking club, a weight management program, a smoking cessation program, short seminars on stress management, and any other health promotion strategies from which participating employees could benefit.
The CCOHS OSH Answers site gives detailed instructions and checklists for anyone wanting to implement a workplace wellness program. CCOHS’ OSH Answers has tips on how to plan a program tailored to the needs of the employees; how to get started; what your workplace wellness program should cover; how to put the plan into action; and how to monitor the program’s effectiveness.
Helping workers to become healthier physically and mentally will have positive impacts on creating a caring working environment, increasing productivity, and will result in fewer accidents and compensation claims. Bottom line, the workers will be healthier and so will the organization.
Threads of Life launches website for people touched by workplace tragedy
A group of more than sixty people gathered together, for the first time ever, at the IAPA’s Health and Safety Conference on April 14th, 2003. Strangers to one another, these individuals shared a bond — all were the friends or family members of loved ones who had been fatally injured in the workplace.
The group, together with employers, union representatives and government organizations, launched a support association that day called Threads of Life. They committed to this collaborative venture to ensure that people grieving a loss after a workplace tragedy would no longer have to suffer alone.
The association’s latest venture is the new Threads of Life website, which explains the background of the association, and contains helpful information for anyone seeking information or support in the aftermath of a workplace tragedy. Visitors to the site can access resources, links and a list of suggested reading, and also have the opportunity to subscribe to Threads, the association’s quarterly newsletter.
Threads of Life is a not-for-profit organization that offers not only a network of hope and healing, but also peer support and information. Inspired by the Canadian LifeQuilt, a tapestry dedicated to the thousands of young workers who have been killed or injured on the job in Canada, Threads of Life promotes public awareness and accountability for workplace health and safety.
All members are people who either relate personally to workplace tragedy or are dedicated to the cause in their professions. Threads of Life is funded through volunteers, direct donations and a number of grants stemming from Human Resources Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), and the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). Other supporters and participants include volunteers from the corporate, labour and public sectors, and other industry partners.
Since the launch of Threads of Life more than a year ago, grieving friends and families have had access to referrals to professional support services, as well as information and advice on workplace safety, and peer support from others who have experienced the same pain and suffering.
Member families have the opportunity to meet annually at the association’s family forum. For members who might wish to promote workplace injury prevention and awareness within their community, Threads of Life offers encouragement and can help spread the message. The group is currently developing a peer support program, which will connect family members with other family members or guides who are trained to provide support.
CCOHS and the Canadian Health Network sign on for a renewed partnership
Health Canada has awarded The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) a two year renewed mandate as Workplace Health Affiliate for the Canadian Health Network (CHN).
CHN is a national, non-profit, bilingual web-based health information service that supports Canadians in making informed choices about their health. CHN provides health information online from multiple, credible sources, including Health Canada, national and provincial/territorial non-profit organizations, as well as universities, hospitals, libraries and community organizations.
Workplace health is an important component of the CHN's mandate, considering the impact workplaces have on determining the health of Canadian workers. As CHN's Workplace Health partner since1999, CCOHS has actively promoted the CHN and its message of healthy living to audiences attending conferences, and to all participants of the Centre's outreach initiatives.
The CCOHS staff is involved with the CHN and its partners at many levels. They write and distribute the Health@Work/Santé @au travail e-bulletin to more than 500 readers, and contribute articles, content and resources to the CHN website. As a Canadian Health Network affiliate, CCOHS has been able to broaden its networking base to include a wide variety of Canadian organizations such as SMARTRISK, Dietitians of Canada, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre, Toronto Public Library, Vancouver Public Library, Canadian Public Health Association, and the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse. Working with these organizations offers CCOHS new channels for promoting workplace injury and illness prevention. CCOHS has also worked with the Canadian Healthy Workplace Council to promote Canada's "Healthy Work Week," and is responsible for updating and maintaining the Council's on-line "Resource Well," which contains health and wellness information and includes links to both the CCOHS and CHN web sites.
The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.
© 2013, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety