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A woman sits at a desk with her head in her hands. A man stands over her, gesturing forcefully to a stack of papers in his hand
Despite numerous high-profile cases of workplace bullying in recent years, bullying and harassment remain widespread. (Shutterstock)

Workplace bullying should be treated as a public health issue

No one should have to be subjected to violence or harassment in the workplace. But workplace harassment is surprisingly widespread in Canada. In 2018, Statistics Canada found that 19 per cent of women and 13 per cent of men experienced harassment in their workplaces.

Bullying goes beyond workplace incivility. While incivility can be addressed through education on workplace etiquette, emotional intelligence and discipline, bullying is intentional interpersonal mistreatment that involves offensive, hostile and assaulting conduct directed at someone for a minimum period of six months.

Multiple high profile incidents of workplace bullying have been in the media over the past few years, from the alleged toxic workplace culture created by former Gov. Gen. Julie Payette and the suicide of a Canadian Armed Forces reservist linked to constant harassment by co-workers, to the alleged toxic work culture at Bell Media and backlash against the firing of CTV News anchor Lisa LaFlamme.

A blue snow-covered sign that says Rideau Hall in gold lettering
Julie Payette resigned as Governor General in 2021 amid allegations of workplace harassment and bullying from current and former staffers at Rideau Hall. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Despite these high-profile cases, not much has changed aside from empty statements from leadership condemning bullying, periods of reflection and referral to third-party investigators.

We need to move beyond awareness campaigns, legislation, high-profile media attention and court action to protect people from workplace bullying. The solution might lie in viewing workplace bullying not as a workplace issue, but as a public health issue.

Bullying has impacts on health

Like other health issues, the impact of workplace bullying has measurable diagnostic implications and the clustering of adverse physical and psychological symptoms of bullying victims is definable. Multiple studies have shown that it can negatively impact a person’s mental health and can even lead to long-term psychological trauma

In addition, bullying has been linked to various health conditions including cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal complaints, sleep issues and generalized physical pain.

All too often, we see the worst life-altering impact of bullying: death by suicide. For those who are already struggling with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, workplace bullying can increase the risk of suicide.

In 2018, the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board paid compensation to a woman after her husband’s suicide was linked to workplace bullying. The man’s workplace was the target of several allegations of workplace bullying. It is clear workplace culture has to change.

Bullying impacts businesses as well

Workplace bullying also significantly impacts the organizations that victims work for. It is well-documented that bullying can negatively affect a person’s perception of their performance and self-worth. This negative perception of a victim’s identity can impact their work productivity.

Around 10 to 52 per cent of a victim’s time at work is deemed unproductive because of the amount of time they spend defending themselves, seeking support, experiencing poor job satisfaction and higher depression and anxiety levels.

A man with his head down in his hands is surrounded by pointing fingers
Bullying doesn’t just impact a victim’s personal life — it can also significantly impact their productivity at work and the firm they work for. (Shutterstock)

Over the last 20 years, the field of research on bullying has shifted. Due to the increasing number of studies linking this issue to mental health issues, researchers developed effective interventions, like workplace bullying tool kits and policy templates that can help workers.

Some of these interventions include developing strategies to prevent bullying and educate abusive managers about the negative effects of their behaviour. In addition, governments have passed legislation to dissuade bullying at work, holding organizations more accountable. But bullying still persists.

Bullying is a public health issue

It’s clear the current workplace health and safety framework isn’t working — people keep getting hurt. Human resource departments are key actors in addressing workplace bullying. But more often than not, field complaints are often mishandled, improperly dismissed or simply ignored.

Public health is a broad term that refers to the way society prevents illness and injury. It involves a variety of programs and policies that promote the well-being of all Canadians. Workplace bullying is a type of preventable violence that, by its very definition, meets the criteria of a public health issue. The health hazards of workplace bullying result in long-term, cumulative exposures and poorer population health outcomes.

It is time to champion change through a public health lens. Under the auspices of the Public Health Act and related provincial authorities, directing appropriate financial and legal resources necessary for preventing, intervening and addressing workplace bullying could finally realize substantive change.

A public health mandate with a universal prevention focus, intensive intervention treatment and ongoing public health surveillance, with the regulatory authority to intervene, would make a significant difference in decreasing the prevalence of workplace bullying.

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