April 26, 2017

Moving Toward Bully- Free Workplaces in PEI

Things are changing in PEI and across the country.  We are at the beginning of an important cultural shift toward the creation of psychologically safe workplaces.  In such environments workers will be protected from bullying, harassment, and workplace violence, and employers will foster and be accountable for the physical and psychological safety of their employees.       

Workplace bullying is a form of violence that occurs when there is unwanted and unreasonable behaviour directed toward an individual or group of workers that creates a risk to their health and safety.  This behaviour offends, humiliates and or intimidates and is considered bullying whether harm was intended or not. Bullying does not include circumstances in which an employer or a supervisor takes reasonable action related to the management of workers.

Bullying is a serious concern in the workplace. As PEI’s largest union representing 5,000 workers in the province, we often deal with incidents of bullying and have noted that the occurrence of these incidents is rising.  Statistics indicate that 40% of Canadian workers experience bullying on a weekly basis (Government of Canada), and 45% of targets suffer stress-related health problems (Workplace Bullying Institute).    

There are both economic and human costs incurred because of workplace bullying. Employers are faced with higher costs due to increased sickness, absence and employee turnover.  Job performance and productivity is also compromised. Workers may experience a loss of wages and costs associated with health care.  There may also be costs associated with grievances, litigation and compensation. The human costs include the loss of precious health and quality of life for the victim and their families. And sometimes the victims of bullying pay the ultimate price through the loss of life.

In 2012, after becoming aware that the Nova Scotia General Employee’s Union (NSGEU) was delivering a world class Bully-Free Workplaces program to its membership, our union met with NSGEU representatives and adapted the Bully-Free Workplaces program for Prince Edward Island.  PEI UPSE partnered with the provincial government to deliver the program to the membership and we have delivered the workshop over sixty times to over 1,200 participants.  The program provides education about bullying behaviours and its effect on employees and the workplace. Workshops also identify how to seek help and how to foster a culture of civility in the workplace.   

In regard to provincial legislation, in 2012 British Columbia passed anti-workplace bullying legislation and became the fifth province to do so at that time. The province established occupational health and safety policies to protect workers from bullying and harassment.  This required employers to develop their own policy statement on workplace harassment as well as procedures to deal with incidents, including reporting and investigation. These developments in occupational health and safety arose from amendments to the Workers Compensation Act which expanded coverage to those suffering from mental disorders due to work related stress caused from bullying and or harassment.  

In Prince Edward Island there have been changes as well.  The WCB revised its policy on psychological or psychiatric conditions which expanded coverage to include PTSD that results from traumatic events at work.  The board also changed the definition of a traumatic event to make it less limiting.  This includes being the object of harassment where one is placed in a potentially life threatening situation.  Although incidences of bullying and harassment can lead to life threatening situations, many simply compromise the health and safety of individuals.  This policy may not encompass these situations.  In any case, in May of 2016 the WCB did confirm that the definition of a workplace accident could include bullying and harassment.  And in December 2016 the WCB awarded compensation for an injury, in this case a fatality, where the cause of the injury was workplace bullying and harassment.  It looks like this was a first for PEI and Canada. 

There is much more that still needs to be done in regard to this important issue.  We need to work together to increase awareness and education for workers and management, and we need to ensure that bully-free workplace policies are acted upon and become the norm in all workplaces.

Karen Jackson,
UPSE President