Exploring the root causes of workplace bullying

Karen Harlos ©UWinnipeg

Have you ever felt stuck in a bad work situation where someone has targeted you with hostile, demeaning comments? Did you feel comfortable telling someone, or did you keep it to yourself?

These are just a few of the questions The University of Winnipeg’s Dr. Karen Harlos has been exploring the past four years through a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Development Grant.

“My field is organizational behavior and, for about 20 years, I’ve been interested in what employees regard as unfair or unjust and how organizations respond,” said Professor Harlos, Department of Business and Administration.

She was inspired to take a new research approach after visiting several leading Scandinavian pioneers in the field.

“During those university visits, where we exchanged our research and I learned about the latest work by cutting-edge scholars, the idea for a new Canadian project emerged,” Harlos said. “It’s sometimes said European and UK researchers in this area have large datasets but more limited theory, while North Americans have limited datasets but richer theory. I began wondering if we could combine the best of both approaches to strengthen the Canadian evidence base for improved practice, policy, and decisions.”

After returning home, she immediately started putting together a research plan and created a team of researchers across several disciplines, institutions, and countries.

Once funding was secure, Harlos leveraged an opportunity with the Government of Manitoba, and its approximately 13,000 employees, which was revising its respectful workplace policy and resources.

“Together, we recognized the rare chance to gather baseline evidence of work experiences (positive and negative) and work environment characteristics across the workforce before policy and resource changes were implemented,” Harlos recalled. “Then, after policy changes were made, we could measure again and see if things improved.”

Harlos and her team also partnered with the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, representing approximately 15,000 public school teachers from kindergarten to Grade 12 across the province, and conducted two member-wide surveys and a focus group study.

The Manitoba Nurses Union, which represents approximately 12,000 nurses across the province, later asked to join the project.

“We have common measures that allow us to make cross-organization and cross-industry comparisons, and so, for example, we measure bullying and mistreatment the same way across the three large organizations,” she explained. “But we also have unique measures tailored to organizations for their particular priorities and work environments. For example, with the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, the focus was safe and inclusive workplaces. For the Nurses Union, it was psychological health at work.”

The importance of policy awareness and training emerged as a key factor in maintaining a healthy workplace, according to the research.

“The more aware and trained in policies, the less likely that participants were exposed to bullying,” she said. “And psychological health was higher for those with greater policy awareness and training, whether they were bullied or not.”

So what’s next?

SSHRC funding recently came to an end, Harlos noted, so the goal is to secure funding from the federal government, non-governmental organizations, or even private ‘angel’ investors or supporters wanting to help employees and organizations prosper and thrive in just and humane ways.

“We’re looking at how we can continue the work, because the commitment and enthusiasm of the original organizations is even stronger now,” she said, noting the next step is to tap into the private sector. “We need to know more about what makes intervention and prevention effective across our diverse workforces, and how to sustain social and economic gains from making workplaces safer.”   

Organizations often have a range of resources available for support and guidance around workplace experiences and issues that may be troubling. These may include employee assistance programs, labour relations officers, union or professional association representatives, or human resources staff, for example.

If you are in crisis and need help now, call the Klinic Crisis Line (24/7) at 1-888-322-3019 (toll free across Manitoba) or the Manitoba Suicide Prevention and Support Line (24/7) at 1-877-435-7170 (toll free) for free and confidential counselling, support, and referrals.  

Brandon Logan, Digital Communications Coordinator, The University of Winnipeg
P: 204.988.7129, E: b.logan@uwinnipeg.ca  

1 Comment

  • selina saunders said...

    I have been through bullying from coworkers that I requested time off for sick leave. I didn’t want to tell anybody at the school but there were a few individuals that made me feel unwanted in the work place.