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Mobbing: Death by a Thousand Cuts


By Doug Ball

An above-average worker, who doesn't cause any trouble, is reliable, and does her job well, suddenly begins to cry uncontrollably one day at work. She's taken to the hospital, where she's diagnosed with clinical depression, a result of too much stress at work.

What's going on? What kind of stress does this?

We all want satisfying jobs in workplaces that are safe and relatively peaceful. We don't want to be attacked, humiliated, or singled out for ridicule. Yet that's exactly what is happening to many workers—even in workplaces where you would least expect it. It happens in buttoned-down corporate offices, even those with strong sexual harassment policies in place. It happens in politically correct universities, where posters from watchdog student body organizations fiercely proclaim they're on guard against any form of discrimination. It even happens in police forces, schools, hospitals, government offices, and union shops—work environments considered safe and protected.

In workplaces across Canada and around the world, incidences of bullying, mobbing, and violence are on the increase. A survey conducted by the International Labour Organization showed that, along with France, Argentina, Romania, and England, Canada has one of the highest rates of assault and sexual harassment on the job. The Workers' Health and Safety Centre of Ontario confirms that assessment. In 2002 in Ontario alone, lost-time claims for injuries from assaults and other violent acts increased ten to 15 percent over each of the previous six years.

Bullying, mobbing, harassment, assault: they all arise from dark impulses buried deep in human nature. Laws alone are unlikely to make them go away. If we wish to maintain a civil society, and if we believe that God-given values of human dignity, brotherhood, and respect are right, then we need to speak up in order to counter brutish and uncivil behaviour. But even so, for the health and safety of workers, we need sharper legislative teeth against it in labour standards. We need unions to write anti-bullying policies into contracts and press hard for their enforcement. And where no such measures are available, we need to resist the bully and abstain from joining in the mob. That's easier said than done.

Not infrequently, mobbing spelled the end of the target's career, marriage, health, and livelihood. (In Sweden, it's been estimated that) about 12 percent of people who take their own lives have recently been mobbed at work.

Most of us instinctively know what bulling is and have probably experienced some of it in our working lives. It's that loud-mouth boor who yells and screams and swears to make a point. You're the low-life, and you'd better get working harder or you will soon feel the door hitting you on the way out. The bully is usually insecure and takes it out on everyone else. In the workplace, he or she is not always the boss, but most often is—about 80 percent of the time.

Sometimes, bullying can lead to violence—with tragic consequences. "Going postal," although rare, grabs the headlines, the violence often attributed to bullying, as in Pierre Lebrun's case.

Lebrun worked at OC Transpo, Ottawa's public transit company. He stuttered badly. Cruel teasing and ridicule from his co-workers rained on him without letup. Finally, in retaliation, he slapped one of his tormentors. He was forced to apologize—a further humiliation.

Later, after he had been let go, Lebrun snapped and returned to his workplace, killing four employees and then himself. Although the media said that he had suffered bullying at work, the subsequent inquest determined that he was the victim of mobbing.

Until the Lebrun episode, mobbing had not received as much attention in Canada as it had in Europe, according to Kenneth Westhues, a sociologist at the University of Waterloo. He describes the phenomenon of mobbing as an impassioned, collective campaign by co-workers to exclude punish and humiliate a targeted worker. Initiated most often by a person in position of power or influence, mobbing is a desperate urge to crush and eliminate the target. The urge travels through the workplace like a virus, infecting one person after another. The target comes to be viewed as absolutely abhorrent, with no redeeming qualities, outside the circle of acceptance and respectability deserving only contempt. As the campaign proceeds, a steadily larger range of hostile ploys and communications come to be seen as legitimate … . Not infrequently, mobbing spelled the end of the target's career, marriage, health, and livelihood. (In Sweden, it's been estimated that) about 12 percent of people who take their own lives have recently been mobbed at work.

To understand mobbing, let's return for a moment to the sobbing worker who landed in the hospital, suffering from clinical depression. A few years prior, she had sustained a crippling injury at work. By law, her employer had a duty to accommodate her, so she was assigned different and—as some of her co-workers felt—easier duties. They didn't like that.

She was also a visible minority in a workplace filled with minorities of one kind or another. But she was the only one of this kind. They didn't like that either.

So she kept her head down and did her work well. She didn't strike up conversations readily, being uncomfortable with her co-workers' rough and tumble and highly sexualized talk. She's too quiet, too "snobbish," some judged, and she soon became the target of their rants. Others also didn't like her, and the developing mob picked on her mercilessly. The bullies among them had a field day tormenting her, having been given permission, in effect, by the rest of the mob. They wanted to get rid of her, get her fired.

After a particularly humiliating episode, she broke down completely and landed in the hospital, diagnosed with depression. A few days later, this shy woman, only in her 30s, suffered a stress-induced heart attack.

This true story, told by Westhues, demonstrates just how destructive mobbing and bullying can be. See full story here. Victims of the mob's attention suffer death by a thousand cuts. A survey of bullied persons in the United States showed that they suffered severe anxiety (76 percent), disrupted sleep (71 percent), loss of concentration (71 percent), clinical depression (39 percent), and panic attacks (32 percent), among others. Cardiovascular stress-related complications were not uncommon.

In jurisdictions around the world, bullying/mobbing is being taken seriously as a costly health and safety issue. Many countries in Europe, as well as Australia, have implemented legal remedies.

In 2002, Quebec amended its labour standards act to provide some protection against bullying. For the first time in Canada, "psychological harassment," defined as "vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct that affects an employee's psychological or physical integrity," is prohibited.

Federally, a similar attempt was made in September 2003 to change the Canada Labour code to "prohibit acts of psychological harassment." Diane Bourgeois, a Bloc Quebecois MP, introduced a private member's bill (C-451) which, ultimately, did not become law. However, given its importance, this issue is likely to resurface.

Federal and provincial human rights codes already protect workers from discriminatory harassment on specific grounds—race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, age, record of offences, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, or handicap. If you are being harassed on one of these grounds, you can complain to the appropriate provincial human rights commission. But what if you don't qualify on one of these grounds?

There are ways that workers, employers, and unions can cooperate to target bullying/mobbing behaviour. Every worker at every level must take an interest in creating and maintaining a peaceful workplace. Of first importance is education—especially about mobbing. Most people understand bullying and can identify it quickly; few appreciate the mob's subtle attractions that draw even the level-headed. Seminars need to stress how to spot early indicators of an emerging mob mentality, and then provide the tools to squash its development.

Employers have a number of options. They can clearly define bullying/mobbing and promote policies aimed at reducing these behaviours. They can outline a process for handling complaints and specify the penalties bullies and mob participants can expect. And they can advertise a strong no-retaliation policy to protect those who come forward.

Unions can be as oblivious to bullying aggression or mobbing incidents as anyone else. But they can still work to include clear anti-bullying/mobbing language in their contracts, along with reporting systems, adjudicating procedures, training for supervisors and union representatives, and general education for their members.

Few of us can withstand the stress of continued derision and humiliation from bosses—not to mention from large numbers of co-workers. Who wouldn't want to ensure a workplace free of such a toxic atmosphere?
Unions and employers can tackle this threat, even before the law gets involved. Awareness and education are the first steps. Now is the time they need to act—before you or a co-worker become the next victim.

Reprinted with permission. This article first appeared in The Guide (September/October 2006), a publication of the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC).


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