Unaddressed workplace bullying can impact safety

Renée Gendron
When Patrick hovered over Isabelle it wasn’t to ensure that she was following the proper procedure when handling the dangerous equipment. Isabelle was fully certified and licenced. She had more than eight years’ experience and never doubted her abilities. In her years on the job she followed the safety guidelines diligently. She always ensured that her equipment was in good working order before and after use.

Patrick was not only Isabelle's supervisor, but also a workplace bully. Patrick was particularly harsh in his critiques over Isabelle’s work and could not give valid examples or reasons for her "poor work." Instead, when she asked for clarification, he would insult her further saying that a true professional would know when their work was lacking.

After months of this treatment, Isabelle was increasingly tired and her confidence waned. Her enthusiasm for her work plummeted. She now dreaded going into work. She had difficulties concentrating at work, resulting in small errors upon which Patrick would immediately pounce. Her lapses in focus also produced some equipment errors. Had she been able to fully concentrate Isabelle would have noticed right away. Because she had been preoccupied with the possibility of reprisals from Patrick, she didn’t notice the equipment failing and was injured. Isabelle had to take a months’ leave of absence to recover from her injuries.

What very few in management picked up on was the fact that Patrick’s team had had a noticeable uptick in accidents. Isabelle’s concentration was troubled because of fear of Patrick’s attention. The same applied to Isabelle’s co-workers. They had seen how Patrick had worn Isabelle down and they were afraid of being the next target. As such, their work began to suffer as their attention was increasingly focused on how to steer clear of Patrick during the day.

Before Patrick’s tenure as supervisor, the team took relatively few sick days. Those too had increased significantly since he was hired. But management thought it was just a particularly nasty flu bug going around or that the parents in the team had to take more time off of work to care for their children. In reality, more sick days were claimed because the stress of going to work had worn down many of the employees’ immune systems. The employees suffered from lack of sleep due to stress which also lead to fatigue and poor concentration. All of these consequences were unseen and not understood by management. All they saw were a few employees underperforming. They didn’t see the reasons behind it.

The presence of a workplace bully creates toxicity in the workplace. The bully prevents open communication as well as the creation of trust between co-workers, and continuously works to erode a person’s self-esteem and self-worth. Distracted by the undue pressures forced upon them, the targets as well as their co-workers have lapses in judgement. As employees are exposed to bullying in the workplace, they can suffer from depression and anxieties. Some employees are even driven to suicide as a result of being bullied. Workplace bullies specialize in downgrading once excellent, confidence and professional employees into nervous, anxious, low self-esteem, poorly performing individuals.

Workplace bullying negatively impacts workplace safety. To improve the safety of a workplace, employees must have a trusting and respectful environment. Training workers in the correct handling of dangerous substances and equipment is important. Equally important is ensuring that there is a culture of safety in which bullying is not tolerated. Such a culture is created when inappropriate behaviours are promptly corrected and there is genuine care for the employees and their well-being.