By: Rita Schnarr, MA, RCC
Knock knock… “Who’s there?”
“It’s ‘Joe.’ Can I come in for a night cap?”
When I heard the knocking on my hotel room door late that night, I was horrified to find the Sales Training Manager standing there with a bottle of wine in hand; especially after I had just told him to leave me alone when he repeatedly called my room asking if he could see me because “he was lonely.”
That entire training conference was horrendous, as I endured continuous stalking and sexual harassment both in and out of sessions. It was humiliating to be a young sales representative at the time being targeted by a mature and well-respected manager. This unwelcome intrusion made me feel powerless and completely disrespected.
Gossip increased after I missed the airport bus transfer. Apparently, Joe had given me a later pick up time from the rest of the group so he could take me in his own car and be alone with me. While I was in great distress in the lobby, another manager realized what had happened and swiftly took me to the airport before Joe showed up. Luckily, the plane was held up for me and I literally flew away.
Lack of Support at Work
Once returning back to what I thought was the safety of my Vancouver office, I was in for some more eye-opening disappointments. I met with my own direct manager and explained to him what had happened during the days away at our sales training camp. The reaction and response I got was even more humiliating and shocking.
“Do you blame him given how cute you are?!”
His advice? “Just ignore him.”
Time passed and the harassment continued with repeated phone calls increasing my anxiety and affecting my work performance. I decided that since my direct manager wasn’t going to help me, I needed to report the ongoing harassment to Human Resources. A few months later, I learned that Joe was given a “buy out.” I was finally saved.
Fast forward 30 years… I am now a Registered Clinical Counsellor for Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych. & Associates, providing psychotherapy for many of my clients seeking help for anxiety and depression as a result of workplace bullying and harassment. Some of the common complaints include passive aggressive behaviour; being harassed and bullied; little being done to address their concerns; and not feeling respected and appreciated.
Facts on Workplace Bullying & Harassment
They are not alone. The Workplace Bullying Institute (2012) reported that 80% of workers experience anxiety as the most common psychological symptom of workplace bullying, with panic attacks also afflicting 52% of workers. The Canada Safety Council reports that: one in six employees has been bullied; one in five employees has seen a co-worker bullied; and workplace bullying is four times more common than workplace discrimination (People’s Law School, 2014).
Data from the 2016 Social Survey on Canadians at Work and Home found that overall, 19% of women and 13% of men reported they had experienced harassment in their workplace. This included verbal abuse, humiliating behaviour, threats to persons, physical violence, and unwanted sexual attention or sexual harassment.
The 2012 Workplace Bullying survey of 552 full-time Canadians found 45% of respondents said they were bullied. The sources of the bullying were: 24% co-worker; 23% immediate boss; 17% higher manager; and 17% external (e.g. customers). Only one in three workers actually reported bullying to H.R.. Sadly, 50-77% of the respondents reported sleep disruption, loss of concentration, mood swings, and pervasive sadness and insomnia. Half (49%) were diagnosed with clinical depression. Less than a third of the targets had contemplated suicide (29%) and 16% planned how to take their life (Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, n.d.).
What are the causes of workplace harassment?
What are the root causes and enablers of incivility and discrimination in the workplace? Organizations are not attuned to the 13 workplace factors which impact employee psychological health and safety (PH&S).
A psychologically healthy and safe workplace has been defined by the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ9700- 803/2013) (the Standard) as “a workplace that promotes workers’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health, including in negligent, reckless or intentional ways.”
Download the Standard here.
The 13 Factors
The 13 factors that have the potential to positively impact mental health, psychological safety, and participation and ultimately improve productivity and bottom-line include:
- Organizational Culture: Employees hold common norms, values, beliefs, meanings, and expectations. They are then used as behavioural and problem-solving cues.
- Psychological and Social Support: Approaches, services and benefits addressing worker mental health.
- Clear Leadership and Expectations: Workers know what they are expected to do through effective leadership; changes are shared in a timely manner; helpful feedback is provided on expected and actual performance; and the organizations provide clear, effective communication.
- Civility and Respect: People treat each other fairly and with respect.
- Psychological Demands: There is a good fit between employees’ interpersonal and emotional competencies and the requirements of the position they hold.
- Growth and Development: Workers receive encouragement and support in the development of their interpersonal, emotional, and job skills.
- Recognition and Reward: Immediate supervisor appreciates work; staff are paid fairly for work done; accomplishments are celebrated; and, worker’s commitment and passion for their work is valued.
- Involvement and Influence: Workers are included in discussions about how their work is done and involved in important decisions that impact their role.
- Workload Management: Assigned responsibilities can be accomplished successfully within the time available.
- Engagement: Workers enjoy their job and are proud to be a part of the success of the organization.
- Balance: A work environment where there is acceptance of the need for a sense of harmony between the demands of personal life, family, and work.
- Psychological Protection: The organization deals effectively with situations that can threaten or harm workers (including bullying and harassment).
- Protection of Physical Safety: Worker’s psychological and physical safely is protected from hazards and risks related to the work’s physical work environment.
Leadership and Workplace Harassment
In addition to the overarching organizational culture issues that can lead to bullying and harassment in the workplace, common features noted in many situations are the lack of leadership qualities. The Standard requires those in people leader positions (those responsible for managing, supervising, or leading another person) to engage in psychologically safe leadership. Leaders need to enhance their skills as they pertain to communication and collaboration, social intelligence, problem solving, conflict management, promotion of security and safety, and fairness, and integrity (see PsychologicallySafeLeader.com). There are also clear systems for performance feedback, and those who do not adhere to expectations are held accountable by the organization as required.
The likelihood of bullying and harassment investigations being appropriately managed is enhanced when the worker’s concerns are heard and addressed. The Standard recommends that organizations look to implement a psychological health and safety management system (PHSMS) by assessing their current policies, processes and interactions in the workplace that might impact employees. If top-level leaders can “walk the talk” and begin making some changes, we can hope to see employees experience less bullying and harassment, thereby also reducing the anxiety and depression they suffer with as a result.
Moyser, M., & Hango, D. (2018). Harassment in Canadian workplaces. Retrieved from
People’s Law School. (2014). Workplace Bullying and Harassment. Retrieved from
Workplace Bullying Institute. (2012). WBI Survey: Workplace Bullying Health Impact.
Retrieved from https://www.workplacebullying.org/2012-d/
Workplace Strategies for Mental Health. (n.d.). The cost of bullying in the workplace. Retrieved