Breaking the Cycle of Workplace Bullying

Introduction: This podcast is brought to you by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. CCOHS is situated upon the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. This land is covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabek to share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. We further acknowledge that this land is covered by the Between the Lakes Purchase, 1792, between the Crown and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

Ashley: Hello, and welcome to Health and Safety To Go! a C-C-O-H-S podcast.
Despite a growing national dialogue on violence and harassment in the workplace, bullying continues to be an issue for many workers in Canada. A recent study exploring the topic found that seventy-one-point-four percent of respondents had experienced at least one form of harassment and abuse in their workplace in the past year. To learn more about the issue and how employers and labor are responding, we’re joined by Doctor Andréane Chénier, National Health and Safety Representative for CUPE, the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Andréane, thanks for being our guest.

Andréane: Thank you for the invitation. I'm really pleased to be here to share with you all, how CUPE, health and safety reps have been helping keep CUPE locals and CUPE members deal with this problem.
I'm joining you today from the N'Swakamok, the Place Where the Three Forks Meet, also known as the city of Greater Sudbury and the traditional territories of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, and the Wahnapitae First Nation.

Ashley: Well, welcome. Let's talk briefly about the kind of behavior that constitutes bullying at work. Our literature at the centre defines it as acts or verbal comments that could psychologically or mentally hurt or isolate, a person in the workplace, usually involving a pattern of behavior intended to intimidate, offend, degrade, or humiliate a particular person or group of people. How would you expand on that what types of behaviors, come up in your work with members?

Andréane:  And that's a really great question, Ashley. One of the things that I find interesting is that we tend to focus a great deal on what behavior constitutes bullying. What is and what isn't. Trying to really pinpoint what that is? What that's going to look like. But the problem with that is, that when we're so focused on being, on identifying what is and is not in terms of behavior, we miss the impact. And the impact on the person who's receiving, whatever it is, the comments, the behaviors, that's actually where the health and safety problem lies, because when we're talking about safety and health and in the workplace, you have to look at where are the problems likely to sprout? And in the context of bullying, there's a couple of new things that not new things, but there's a couple of different behaviors that we're seeing in our members. One of them is the Formation of cliques.

So, as soon as you have a clique happening in the workplace, what you have is basically people who are in and then you also have the people who are quote unquote out. And that's where you're going to get problems with shunning, because now you have an organized group of people who are deliberately excluding other people and so that ends up being quite a big problem that will, if you have that kind of behavior happening, it will spread out over to the rest of your workplace.

So, those kinds of behaviors are really, really important to actually get a get a handle on. And that's becoming more and more important as our as we are recognizing and respecting all of the different identities that people can have. When we think about those, we have to think about; what are human rights? We have to think about, you know what, the abilities that a person might have, what their cultural background might be, what their race, their age, their sexual orientation. All of those things that actually make up what a person and who a person is.

Ashley: The intersectionality...

Andréane:  Exactly!  The intersectionality between all of those identities can create some tension. So, it’s really important in workplaces to get a good handle on what's going on and the dynamics between your workers.

Ashley: That makes sense. What responsibilities do employers have to create a psychologically safe workplace that's free from bullying?

Andréane:  Well. I’m a health and safety specialist. Well, we start with; an employer has an obligation to provide you with safe and healthy work. And that's the part that people will often forget. They get stuck on workplace and they stop, you know, they stop really thinking about that it’s safe and healthy work, that's required.

And so, when you think about safe and healthy work, then you have to consider the fact, okay all the health and safety problems. What are like, how can that happen? So bullying is an offensive behaviour, and that offensive behavior can cause mental health problems down the line. So, if you as a work, as an employer have these kinds of behaviors, it actually is your duty to deal with them.

Ashley: Right.

Andréane:  A really great document is actually called “Tracking the Perfect Legal Storm”, that explains quite well, the different places, where there's a legal obligation for an employer to actually provide psychologically safe workplaces. And you'll find those in labour relations laws, you'll find them in a lot of reports, through negligence. Compensation systems are compensating for things like PTSD and a chronic mental stress. The Occupational Health and Safety Acts actually require that you provide safe and healthy work. There's contract law and there's also human rights. All of those different pieces of legislation place an obligation on the employer that makes the employer responsible for controlling bullying in the workplace.

Ashley: What are some innovative ways organizations are tackling this issue? What have you seen in your work? Organizations that are doing it well?

Andréane:  Well, in organizations that are doing it well, there's a couple of features that they have. Generally, they have a really good handle on what's going on in their workplace. And that generally ends up being because they have people who are trained it on site.

So, it sounds like it's innovative, but actually, having trained supervision and management makes a big difference. Having solid conflict, resolution processes in place, not just for managers and supervisors actually, but also for frontline workers. Because having the ability to start dealing with issues when they're really small, can actually prevent something from blooming and becoming a lot bigger, that then spreads to the rest of the workplace.

And psychosocial hazard prevention plans, because bullying is an offensive behaviour, it falls under the psychosocial hazards. And so as soon as you start assessing those, workplaces that do tend to have way less offensive behaviors. Then you can also train your workers for organizational resilience not just hey, have you meditated lately?

And then increased access to employee and family, assistance plans, to give you the resources in the times to be able to heal. Those are the strategies that I find more common in workplaces where there is good, psychosocial, or there where there's good psychological safety.

Ashley: That's interesting. Are there major differences in the way a smaller organization might approach it versus a larger organization?

Andréane:  Absolutely, because that makes a difference in terms of; do you know your workforce? In a smaller workplace, the supervisors and managers are on site. They know their workers. They tend to understand, you know, who's doing what. There's a closer tie. And so, it's easier for a smaller organization to have, like to spot the problem when it's happening.

The thing though is with a smaller organization, they're also much less likely to have all of the resources than a very large organizations going to have. So, you know your workforce better, you're more likely to intervene sooner than a larger organization, but you may not have as much expertise. That's where in those smaller workplaces, that's where organizations like C-C-O-H-S, like O-H-C-O-W. I'm from Ontario, so organizations like O-H-C-O-W, like the Workers Health and Safety Center. All of those that offer free services to those smaller worker places, that's where they may be accessing those services just to get the expertise and the resources they need.

In a larger organization, they're much more likely to have all of those things in place. But the problem then is that the more much more likely to be centralized in their management and their administration. Which means that there's not necessarily as many supervisors on site. And so, and also, because they end up being bigger it’s harder to get everybody you know to ensure that everybody has the same training in the same understanding. So different organizations have different challenges, generally, that's what that those are the issues, or those are the ways that they respond, that I've noticed.

Ashley: What would you like to see employers doing more of to reduce instances of harassment and violence?

Andréane:  Excellent question!

One of the first things that I would say is training supervisors that are on site. When we don't have supervision that's on site, what we're now seeing more often is that we have workers who then start making decisions as to how things should and shouldn't be done. Because there isn't somebody to ask to say, hey, is this the right, is this the right thing? When that situation happens, you can easily spiral into one person starts telling another person what to do, one person gets offended ,”you're not my boss!” and then it starts a conflict that then can spiral very much out of control and get a lot bigger and spill over into other people.
And so, having a trained supervisor on site number one. Making sure that people have conflict resolution skills. For workers, for supervisors and managers, again, same reason, start dealing with tackling problems that happen head-on and prevent escalation into workplace harassment or work-related violence, actually.
To prevent harassment, bullying, or other types of offensive behaviors, then I'd be looking at a psychosocial hazard assessment. That kind of thing you can get from a free tool like Stress Assess dot c-a.

For workplace violence, I would do very specific assessment of all of the hazards in the space and, in the work, to look for workplace violence. And then having a solid mental health protection and prevention solution. Because regardless of what you do someone is, like at some point, someone will experience something that feels like harassment, or they also may get assaulted or experienced workplace violence. Having a solid mental health protection prevention solution means that you're going to intervene and prevent a problem from developing into something worse.

Ashley: That makes sense. So, it sounds like we really need to think about not just, you know, actions, but how actions are received.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with our audience?

Andréane:  Yes. Some of the things that people forget, like a psychosocial hazard prevention and control plan; protects your mental health and is cheaper overall, it increases employee retention, creativity productivity and resilience. And it will make your organization a lot more attractive to workers.

We know that from a return-on-investment perspective, every dollar that we invest in these types of programs comes back to us at least two-fold. And so, to my mind, that's an excellent investment to protect your bottom line, and to protect your organization from risks because you're having difficulty with retaining your skilled labour. You can access some of those tools at StressAssess dot c-a to help you figure out where your problem lies and how to target your solutions for best impact.

And if you're looking for ways to establish a psychosocial hazard prevention and protection plan there are CSA standards on psychological safety in work, the Z-one thousand and three, that can help you create a program that will work for you and your organization and your workers.

And all of those tools are free.

Ashley: It's been such a pleasure to talk to you today Andréane, you can find more resources addressing bullying in the workplace on our website c-c-o-h-s dot c-a.

Thanks so much for listening.