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.