What can be nailed down a little more firmly are the factors that can lead to workplace violence or bullying. Yes, the layoffs, hiring freezes and company cutbacks plaguing corporations do factor into making our workplaces angrier, but there are other reasons.
"We typically think of aggressive behaviour in the workplace, be it bullying or harassment or physical assault, as part of a continuum, but there are three sets of variables that contribute to it," says Dr. Phil Klassen, head of the Workplace Violence Risk Assessment Program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. These include individual differences, such as conflicting personality types; occupational difficulties, for example, staff with financial or marital trouble; and cultural workplace issues, which include strained labour management relations, systemic unfairness, an uncomfortable physical environment, change in the workplace and favoritism or nepotism.
"Particularly if there's any vulnerability in the workplace, there can be risk," says Marje Burdine, a workplace consultant and founder of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the Justice Institute of B.C. in Vancouver, British Columbia. "This includes people who don't have a lot of training, for example; people who wouldn't be able to find another job easily or one that's as good."
Not surprisingly, workplace bullying has negative effects on employee health. Victims can become depressed and isolated from colleagues. Bullying can physically take its toll through sleeplessness, varying signs of stress, even substance use problems.
Performance suffers as well. Ironically, the employee may actually increase productivity initially, as he struggles to prove his worth. But that burst of productivity is short lived, as bullying continues. "It's devastating because victims lose confidence; they aren't able to perform at the level they normally would; they become resentful of the organization," says Burdine.
So as awareness of bullying grows, what can be done in today's workplaces? A healthy first step is implementing workplace violence and intimidation policies. "But while many organizations have harassment and discrimination policies, an actual violence policy is rare," says Klassen. "Workplaces are well advised that if they have a workplace violence policy, they better actually do what they say they're going to do," he says. "If you don't follow up as an organization with a policy, then you're probably better off legally not having a policy."
While French agrees that having a policy is part of the answer, he sees other solutions, as well. "It's also about tightening existing policies," he says. "It's not just reinventing new policies, but being able to strengthen and apply the policies we already have, such as harassment policies. And we need to work on ways of conduct. We train people well to do their job, but we don't train them particularly effectively to manage people. We need to provide training to people who lead."
Burdine firmly believes that anti-bullying policies need to be implemented on a broader societal level: "There's a real need for a public policy because it raises awareness," she says. "And it makes a public statement that bullying is unacceptable."