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About the Issue

BACKGROUND

Over a century ago, Freud observed that work and love give essential meaning to our lives.  Satisfying work provides stability, direction, security and a sense of achievement, self-worth, a feeling of belonging, camaraderie and of course a source of income.

Unfortunately, few workplaces can be called psychologically healthy, says Maury Lieberman, Ph. D., former chief of the special programs branch at the US Center for Mental Health Services.

The workplace has become a breeding ground of discontent and a source of stress.

Mental health claims are the fastest growing category of disability in terms of cost in Canada. It now accounts for an estimated 30-to-40 percent of the disability claims recorded by Canada’s Major insurers and employers.

WORKPLACE VIOLENCE AND HOMICIDE

But the impact of a dysfunctional workplace goes beyond the mental well-being of employees to impact physical safety – in the most extreme cases – to include homicide.

For example, homicide is the second leading cause of death on the job for workers in the United States.

In one Canadian case, that left left four OC Transpo employees dead in 1999, the gunman was a former employee subjected to abusive bullying.

“The (coroner’s) jury number one recommendation call(ed) for the federal government and the province to make it mandatory for employers to develop and implement policies dealing with workplace violence.  The guidelines would include harassment, bullying, teasing and mocking.”

While a study by Statistics Canada found that weapons were not used in most Canadian cases, there were still more than 356 thousand workplace incidents in 2004 – or about a 1,000 a day.  About 19% of workplace incidents did involve the use of a weapon, such as a gun, a knife, a bottle, a stick or a bat.

BULLYING

In a 2003 survey of self-described bullying victims by the Workplace Bullying and & Trauma Institute found that:

  • Victims suffered stress effects such as severe anxiety (76 percent), disrupted sleep (71 percent), and post-traumatic stress disorder (39 percent).
  • In 70 percent of cases, the bullying only stopped when the victim quit or was let go.  In a further 17 percent, the victim was transferred.
  • The bully suffered consequences only in 13 percent of cases.

Bullying is usually associated with only one bully, but mobbing is a more extreme form of bullying on the job.  It includes an entire group of co-workers ostracizing a particular worker.

Unfortunately, bullying is not always recognized or is defined to protect the abuser.  In the same way, sexual harassment was once considered “just the way men and women interact,” bullying is sometimes referred to as “office politics” or “management style.”

Moreover, the victim may not even recognize it.  Researchers Joanne Leck and Bella Galperin found 16 percent of workers indicated they were bullied monthly.  But once they were provided a description of what bullying behavior entailed, the number jumped to 58 percent.

PSYCHOPATHS IN SUITS

A leading Canadian forensic psychologist feels that the workplace may reward some of the worst violators. In the book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, co-author Robert Hare says the current workplace has become a haven for the “psychopath.”

Psychopath has very specific meaning among psychologists  that goes beyond the popular definition of crazy.  In fact, most psychopaths are quite ‘sane’ but have, among other qualities, a ruthless self-interest with little or no empathy for others.

The book argues that psychopaths are remarkably successful at getting hired – their charm and glibness makes them dynamite interviewees.  Once on the job, they tend to rise quickly, thanks to their manipulative charisma, single-minded determination to win and a complete lack of remorse about who gets run over in their climb up the ladder.

“There are three basic motivations of a psychopaths, “says Snake in Suits co-author, industrial psychologist Paul Babiak.

“They love to play games, they’re thrill seekers willing to take risks and they like to hurt people.  When you look to see what makes a successful business person, it’s someone willing to take risks, who likes to ‘play the corporate game’ to advance within the company.”

WORKPLACE VIOLENCE IS COSTLY

Workplace violence and its outcome is extremely costly, both in terms of human suffering and decreased profitability.  According to several studies, the annual cost of workplace violence to employers in the United States is estimated to be between $4 billion and $36 billion.

Some estimate that the average direct cost to employers of a single episode of workplace violence can amount to $250,000 in lost work-time and legal expenses.

Bullying or a “macho” attitude also works against a culture of safety in the workplace.  Canada has one of the highest rates of workplace fatalities among OECD countries with the average five deaths per working day.  Only Korea, Portugal and Turkey have higher workplace fatality rates.

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Workplace on the Edge

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