Living in fear at work due to bullying and harassment can result in accumulating toxic stress.
“Whenever an employee perceives they are being bullied or harassed in the workplace this can lead to feeling isolated,” says Lynn Brownell, president and CEO of Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS), a not-for-profit informational organization affiliated with the Ontario government. Not knowing where to turn or how to deal with being bullied or harassed can result in self-preservation strategies such as avoidance and taking sick time.
It’s beneficial when senior leaders understand when an employee doesn’t feel confident to ask for help when they’re being victimized and their workplace experience and productivity are being negatively affected.
Statistics Canada reported about 19 per cent of women and 13 per cent of men had experienced harassment in their workplace a recent study. As well, around 47 per cent of men and 34 per cent of women who had been harassed by a supervisor or manager had a weak sense of belonging to their organization.
It’s common for employees who are feeling psychologically threatened to withdraw. Fear of being bullied or harassed can be a barrier that can impact daily micro decisions and behaviours, such as when and where it’s safe to go to the restroom. It can be difficult for leaders and peers who have never experienced this kind of terror to comprehend how powerless and terrifying being a victim can be.
“While harassment can take many forms, frequently the harasser will intensify a power imbalance by isolating a target, which removes people from potential support systems,” says Troy Winters, senior health and safety officer at Canadian Union of Public Employees. “Targets of harassment may not know that they are being targeted, or may not be able to self-advocate.”
It’s also common to see many employees who haven’t developed the ability to confront a bully or harasser, or feel confident enough to report and manage the process that goes with reporting bullying. The difficulty of reporting increases when there aren’t trusted social connections in the workplace.
Employees who feel they’re targeted and unsure what to do can benefit from talking to a neutral, safe third party such as an employee and family assistance representative to get support and coaching. One observation I’ve made working with victims of workplace bullying and harassment is many of these employees lived in a chronic state of fear and isolation for months and years before the abuse stopped.
When an employee experiences bullying and harassment in the workplace, this can lead to perceived isolation that can leave them feeling as if stranded alone on an island. The positive news is that there is a growing commitment by government and employers to make the workplace more psychologically safe.
By engaging in conversation we can learn what we can do in the workplace to stop bullying and harassment and reduce the risk for people feeling isolated. “This is a complex business issue that needs a human response,” says Ms. Brownell.
Preventing or removing the barrier of perceived isolation due to bullying or harassment requires awareness and intention by both employees and employers. “To stop bullying and harassment, all managers and employees must report it, and if unable to learn how, to ask for help, as they are not alone,” says Ms. Brownell.
Coaching tips to reduce risk for becoming isolated:
- Build a buddy system – Commit to building at least one authentic relationship at work where you both agree to regularly check in on each other. Talk openly about how you would support each other if either one of you were ever bullied or harassed. The goal is to have a support system ready to help in times of need, to reduce the risk for feeling isolated.
- Take respectful workplace training – Take advantage of training offered by your employer or through an online course that explores the respectful workplace continuum. This will help you be clear on overt and covert types of bullying and harassment so you have context and a frame of reference to help in early identification. As well, get some ideas on how to learn to self-advocate, if that’s a challenge for you.
- Support – It’s important to know that labour departments in most provinces have no tolerance for workplaces that allow, or fail to address, bullying or harassment. You’re never alone, and if you become a target there’s support; you don’t have to feel isolated. However, to get support requires you to ask for help. While that may sound hard, many have been trained to support people to get through crisis. If unsure what to do, you can start with your employee and family assistance program; talk to a trusted family member or peer; contact a crisis line; or consult a medical doctor or psychologist.
Bill Howatt is the founder of Howatt HR Consulting and a co-creator of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.