Bullying leaves deep scars

N.B. research finds bullying leads to despair, affects productivity

Workplace bullying can be insidious and its targets often blame themselves for the treatment. One woman, who worked for a transportation company in Fredericton for four years, only realized after leaving that she had been the victim of bullying at the hands of the organization’s chief executive officer.

“I didn’t realize what was happening at the time. I thought I must be doing something wrong,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. “It was a gradual process of alienation, of demeaning me, affecting my credibility. You end up questioning yourself on everything you’re doing.”

And she wasn’t the only one. She knew at least eight other colleagues who left because of the treatment they had received — some even sued the company.

This is the kind of story Rosella Melanson, executive director of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women in Fredericton, heard over and over again when the council held focus groups and lunch-and-learn sessions with victims of workplace bullying last year.

The response to an event or article on workplace bullying is astounding, said Melanson.

“Whenever we mention workplace bullying, we get a lot more reaction than any other topic, including abortion,” she said.

After months of lunch and learns, the council stopped offering them because it couldn’t keep up with demand and Melanson said she became disheartened by hearing all the stories and not being able to offer any concrete help.

“There is no law. It’s not like we can refer them to anything,” she said.

In the spring, the council formally petitioned an independant review of the province’s Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (WHSCC) to add workplace bullying to the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Quebec and Saskatchewan are the only two provinces with anti-bullying, or anti-psychological harassment, legislation. The federal government also adopted a new law this year to protect federally regulated workers from psychological harassment.

The benefit of bringing workplace bullying under the purview of WHSCC is to allow for investigation into complaints, supports for employees and education around the issue, according to Ginette Petitpas-Taylor, chair of the New Brunswick council

Unfortunately, the review’s recommendations don’t mention workplace bullying at all. However, the council is still lobbying the government to make workplace bullying illegal, said Melanson.

“I really feel strongly that legislation needs to be put in place that has teeth and financial penalties have to be given to the companies that are found guilty because that’s the only way it’s going to stop,” said the woman who was bullied at the transportation company.

Helpful website

In an effort to help employers and employees, researchers at the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, have launched a website that gives victims and managers tools to recognize and address workplace bullying.

One of the tools, a workplace bullying grid, helps organizations track bullying in the workplace and monitor the effect of efforts to improve the situation, said Marilyn Noble, co-chair of the workplace violence and abuse research team.

The website, www.unbf.ca/towardarespectfulworkplace, also has a glossary of the legal language around bullying and harassment and guides for employees and employers. It also identifies various behaviours and where they fall on the bullying spectrum.

“It’s such a great resource because there’s so little out there,” said Melanson, of the Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

However, she would like to see a French version of the website so it could be more helpful to one-third of the province’s residents who speak French as their first language.

Also, the website isn’t very helpful to women who don’t have many co-workers or anyone to complain to, such as a woman working in an office of three people, said Melanson, but it’s a good start.

Studies show impact

The website is the product of two studies by the centre on workplace bullying. The first examined the effect of bullying on victims and the second brought together HR professionals, union representatives and social workers to explore practical interventions.

The first study, which included focus groups of 21 men and women who had been victims of workplace bullying in New Brunswick, found bullying significantly affects a victim’s work and physical, mental, social and financial health.

The study revealed bullying erodes a person’s self confidence and causes social withdrawal and isolation, said Noble. It can also cause post-traumatic stress disorder, despair and can even lead to suicide, she said.

“From the organization’s perspective, there’s a huge drop in productivity. If you’re watching your back, it’s hard to do your job. People also tell us they withhold their best ideas so the organization loses that, too,” said Noble.

Policy not enough

While more organizations are realizing the need for a policy to address workplace bullying, most of those policies only kick in after the bullying has escalated to a critical level, she said.

“Just having a policy doesn’t do it,” she said. “There needs to be a lot of early recognition and early intervention so those things don’t escalate.”

Noble would like to see more organizations offer conflict-resolution training for employees and managers, including role playing a conversation with a bully to empower the victim to talk to the bully before the situation escalates to a formal complaint.

In talking to managers, Noble discovered that anywhere from 50 per cent to 90 per cent of bullies don’t know what kind of effect their behaviour has on other people. This is a surprise to most targets of bullying who feel the behaviour is very purposeful, she said.

“That sort of changes the whole perspective,” she said. “Bullies by nature are unapproachable so they’re not going to get feedback and if they don’t get feedback, they can’t self correct.”

What NB Power did

NB Power in Fredericton developed a respectful workplace program six years ago as a way to prevent bullying in the workplace. The focus of the program, created by NB Power’s ombudsman Rita Hurley, is to prevent disrespectful behaviours (gossip, ostracism, swearing) and promote respectful behaviours (speak with discretion, don’t make assumptions, don’t take things personally).

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