January 4th, 2013

Province: B.C. government employees get new agreement to combat the bullying in their midst

By Michael Smyth, The Province

The nightmare at work started with one manager taking a personal dislike to her and nitpicking everything she did — from the way she dressed to the “irritating” tone of her voice.

Other managers joined in and discipline notes were placed on her personnel file, for things like talking to her son on the phone during work hours. Her son is autistic.

But the worst phase of the office bullying began when her own co-workers started to isolate and harass her. At a staff Christmas party, she was given a card with sexual content that suggested she slept with all the men in the office.

Everyone laughed, and she tried to laugh, too. But, on the inside, she was in despair.

“My life was hell,” she said. “I was in misery, dreaded going to work every day, and started drinking every night to deal with it.”

That’s just one of the dozens of stories I heard this year during a series of columns on workplace bullying within the B.C. government.

That’s right: the government of Christy Clark, the province’s anti-bullying champion, was rife with bullying itself.

Now action is being taken.

During recent contract negotiations between the government and its largest union, the issue of on-the-job bullying became a key topic.

“For the first time we’ve been able to land bullying language in our master agreement,” said Darryl Walker, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union.

“This is something that can’t be hidden in the back room anymore like a dirty little secret. It’s there, it’s real and we have to do something about.”

The new contract, ratified last month, includes strict time limits for investigating and resolving accusations of on-the-job bullying and harassment.

And not just bullying by managers. The union and government also ratified an agreement to investigate and resolve bullying among co-workers, even if they’re in the same union.

The agreement defines workplace bullying as “repeated hostile conduct, comments, actions or gestures that affects an employee’s dignity and that results in a harmful work environment, or a single incident of such behaviour that has a lasting harmful effect.”

Recognizing “peer-to-peer” bullying was a crucial step, since most workplace bullying now being reported in B.C. involves co-workers bullying each other.

Workplace bullying is now covered by the province’s workers’ compensation system, if it results in a worker developing a “mental disorder.”

The changes, which came into effect July 1, delivered on Christy Clark’s promise to address workplace bullying in both the public and private sectors.

It struck a nerve. In the first five months of the new law being on the books, WorkSafe B.C. received 900 claims for work-related mental disorders.

About a quarter of the claims came within the health-care system.

In order for a bullied worker to qualify for compensation, the harassment must result in an official mental disorder — such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress — as diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist.

The strict definition and diagnosis requirements came after the government was pressured by B.C. business groups, which feared an avalanche of expensive bullying complaints by employees.

The new law’s original wording did not a require diagnosis by a psychologist or psychiatrist, and the words “mental stress” were changed to “mental disorder” as defined in the official manual of the American Psychiatric Association.

It doesn’t go far enough, says NDP human-rights critic Raj Chouhan.

“If Premier Christy Clark is really serious about tackling workplace bullying, then she should have taken a real stand,” said Chouhan.

Chouhan introduced a private member’s bill in the legislature this year that defined workplace bullying as “any conduct, comment, display, action or gesture that adversely affects a worker’s psychological or physical well-being” including “subtle methods of coercion such as manipulation, including ignoring and isolating a person.”

There’s no mention of an official diagnosis by a doctor.

Will the NDP bring in this sweeping definition of workplace bullying if they win the May election?

“That’s our position and we stand by it,” Chouhan said, though you can bet business would fight to prevent it.

A renowned expert on workplace bullying, meanwhile, thinks the government is still headed in the right direction.

“Employers need to realize bullying if prohibitively costly in itself from sick days, stress leave, long-term disability, employee turnover, lawsuits — and it’s all preventable,” said Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

“It’s an epidemic. And it needs to stop.”

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