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Workplace bullying should be treated as a public health issue

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.

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.

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.

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