Q: What is workplace violence?
A: Workplace violence is more than a physical act and includes sexual harassment. Our definition of workplace violence includes any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted, in circumstances relating to their work.
These behaviours could originate from customers or co-workers at any level of the organization. This definition would include all forms of harassment, bullying, intimidation, physical threats/ assaults, robbery and other intrusive behaviours.
Q: Is it a big problem in Canadian workplaces? Who is most at risk?
A: It is a significant problem, and one that is quietly growing in Canadian workplaces. Research to date suggests that women are more at risk of aggression while on the job than men.
According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment has been the fastest growing area of complaints in Ontario since 1991.
When compared to other countries, surprisingly, Canada has little to be proud of when it comes to aggression on the job. The International Labour Organization (1996) reported that 9.7% of Canadian women surveyed said that they were victims of "sexual incidents" on the job, and 5% of women, as opposed to 3.9% of men, reported being assaulted at work.
"Sexual incidents" ranged from leering and sexual innuendo to rape; assault, in addition to physical violence, included various forms of threats and bullying. In addition, employees in the fields of health care, retail and education are more likely to experience violence, and we know that the majority of employees in these occupations tend to be women.
Q: Are there certain patterns of workplace violence?
A: Some occupations are more at risk than others. There appears to be an escalation in consumer impatience with the speed and perceived quality of service.
We are beginning to see an increase in aggression in the education field, involving teachers and teachers’ aides. Healthcare workers, including nurses, aides and doctors, have long voiced their concern about the way they are treated by the very people they serve.
My personal impression is that many of us are in a great hurry to carry out our personal or work-related tasks in what seems to be a shorter period of time. Doing more with less is a prescription for aggression.
One of the objectives of the CIWV is to research workplace trends to better understand what occupations are more at risk of violence and what specifically can be done about it.
Q: What can be done at work by employers and employees to address this growing problem?
A: First and foremost, a workplace violence prevention policy is only as good as the procedures that support it. Ironically, one of the major obstacles in addressing workplace violence is “reporting it.” All too frequently, employees do not know where or how to report a violent incident.
In other cases, when they do take this bold step, many feel personally dismissed or the incident may be minimized in some way. It is critically important, if we are going to get a grip on this pressing issue, that organizations have very clear and concise procedures that support their policy statements. In these procedures, an employer should clearly spell out what they mean by "violence" and how someone can report an incident.
Of course, knowing what and where to report will have no impact unless the organization is receptive to the complaint. Any report should be taken seriously and employees should be encouraged to take this important first step.
Employees should never underestimate how aggressive acts can erode their self-confidence and productivity over time. Reporting a violent act is the employee’s first and foremost right and responsibility. Unless we confront the perpetrators of these aggressive acts, they will continue and others will suffer needlessly.
Q: In order to make a difference, what needs to be done?
A: Workplace violence, in whatever form, is a complex issue and does not lend itself to a simple solution. The single most important first step is to educate yourself about your personal rights and responsibilities while on the job. By raising awareness in this way, fewer of us will tolerate conduct that, for all practical purposes, is unacceptable.
There are a host of steps that each of us can take to combat aggression on the job. Whether you are an employee or employer, you will find our Web site www.workplaceviolence.ca a virtual resource centre filled with valuable information on this important topic.
The CIWV Web site is presently conducting an on-line survey that is the second phase of our national research project aimed at raising awareness of the issue of workplace violence. The public is invited to visit the site to fill it out and to get more information on workplace violence.