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Harassment, Violence, Bullying and Mobbing

Workplace harassment: engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.

Workplace violence: an exercise of physical force or the attempt to exercise physical force by a person against a worker in a workplace that causes or could cause physical injury to the worker.

Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable or inappropriate behaviour directed towards a worker, or group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety.

It is the legal duty of an employer to protect the mental and physical health of employees. That means protection from harassment, violence and bullying. Across Canada, there has been a major push through legislative amendments to make employers more accountable for fostering mentally safe work environments. This push is backed by case law which has found employers liable for exposing employees to unsafe work environments that have caused unnecessary psychological harm.

Many provincial occupational health and safety acts have been expanded to include harm to psychological well-being in the definition of harassment. Managers should never tolerate any violent behaviour including aggression, harassment or threats of violence. Violent or aggressive behaviour hurts the mental health of everyone in the organization and creates a psychologically unsafe work environment filled with fear and anxiety.

Many organizations think that harassment, violence and bullying do not affect their workplace however, the prevalence is staggering. The Workplace Bullying Institute conducted a survey in 2007 which found these stats about workplace bullying:[1]
Employer's Response to Bullying

  • 37 percent of workers have been bullied: 13 percent currently and 24 percent previously.
  • 40 percent of bullied individuals never tell their employers and 62 percent of employers who are told ignore the problem, hoping that it will stop on its own, not knowing what to do or normalizing this damaging behaviour.
  • 45 percent of targets suffer stress-related health problems.

Mental illness and violence:

There is a popular myth that people with mental illness are more violent than the rest of the population. In actuality, people with mental illness are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violence than the general population[2] and therefore, in need of protection from workplace violence, just like the rest of employees. Dr. Heather Stuart, an epidemiologist and co-founder and co-chair of the Scientific Section on Stigma and Mental Disorders for the World Psychiatric Association, released data showing that only three percent of all violent crimes can be attributed to people with mental illness.[3]

Freedom from discrimination and violence is one of the three most significant determinants of mental health.[4] When work environments become unsafe and individuals think they must protect and fend for themselves, the entire organization suffers.

Policies and practices for workplace harassment, violence and bullying

Organizations must implement policies and practices that promote and protect employee mental health and psychological safety. Organizations should review their current policies and procedures and consider how they might be positively or negatively contributing to issues of violence and harassment in the workplace.

The following are examples of practical measures that employers can put in place to reduce the risk of workplace violence and harassment:[5]

  • Create written workplace violence and harassment policies and train employees on such policies.
  • Include this element in the health/risk assessments done in the workplace to determine the possibility or prevalence of workplace violence or harassment.
  • Disclose incidents of workplace violence and harassment to the health and safety committee.
  • Provide ways for employees to report instances or risks of workplace violence and harassment.
  • Discipline employees for not following workplace violence and harassment policies or for committing workplace violence or harassment.
  • If available to the organization, promote EAP services so that employees who are subject to workplace violence or harassment can talk to someone confidentially about issues they are facing.
  • Ensure that proper security measures are in place at the workplace to protect workers from members of the public or customers.
  • Keep detailed records of any workplace violence or harassment, investigation or work refusal.

A bullying prevention policy should:[6]

  • include a statement from top management to all workers stating that bullying is inappropriate and will not be tolerated;
  • describe bullying and the types of behaviour that constitute bullying;
  • include a statement of risks to the organization and individuals;
  • identify where complaints should go (ex., Human Resources);
  • encourage workers who experience or witness bullying to report it;
  • clearly state that retaliation against or victimization of workers who report workplace bullying will not be tolerated;
  • state the process that will be followed if a complaint is received; and
  • state a commitment to prompt action if workplace bullying occurs.

  • Developing Health Promotion Policies, by THCU, provides a practical framework for the planning, implementation and evaluation of healthy public policies. The manual also provides real-life examples of policy initiatives that address a range of health issues, including workplace stress.  These can illustrate the policy development process. See http://www.thcu.ca/infoandresources/resource_display.cfm?resourceID=773&emailID=520.
  • Let’s Talk: A Guide to Resolving Workplace Conflicts demonstrates effective techniques, skills and attitudes for identifying and addressing conflict among co-workers. Developed by the Government of Alberta, Department of Employment and Immigration. See http://www.alis.gov.ab.ca/pdf/cshop/letstalk.pdf.

  • Bullying in the Workplace: A Handbook for the Workplace is a free resource created by the Ontario Safety Association for Community and Healthcare. It provides many practical tools and strategies to help prevent, identify and address bullying in the workplace. Topics include explaining the occurrence of workplace bullying; tips for preventing workplace bullying and for creating a respectful work environment; recognizing and removing the risks of workplace bullying; workplace bullying policy; and tips for developing a complete complaint resolution process. See http://www.osach.ca/products/resrcdoc/rvioe528.pdf.
  • Code of Practice: Violence, Aggression and Bullying at Work is a manual is designed to help organizations identify and address violence, aggression and bullying in the workplace. This two part manual looks at violence and aggression at work, bullying at work, and prevention and management. See http://www.commerce.wa.gov.au/worksafe/PDF/Codes_of_Practice/Code_violence.pdf.
  • Violence in the Workplace Prevention Guide, by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, will assist in the development and implementation of a workplace-specific violence prevention program. It is filled with clear-language text including safety tips, charts, diagrams, checklists and illustrations. See http://www.ccohs.ca/products/publications/violence.html.
  • A sample workplace bullying policy is included in Appendix A (hyperlink)


Workplace mobbing is ongoing, systematic bullying of an individual by his or her colleagues.[7]

Workplace mobbing can be overt and intentional, taking the form of rudeness and physical intimidation. But often it is subtle and possibly unintentional, involving social ostracism and exclusion. In fact, each individual incident may seem inconsequential but over a period of time, mobbing erodes the self-confidence and self-esteem of the mobbed employee.

“It is not just the victim that is harmed by mobbing; the workplace also pays a price in a loss of loyalty and performance from the mobbed employee.”

Mental Health Works

Mobbing may be occurring in your workplace if:

  • conversations stop when someone comes into the office;
  • someone is not invited to meetings he/she normally had been included in;
  • information essential to someone’s job performance was withheld;
  • during interactions with the person, co-workers are either hostile or passive-aggressive.

The Canada Safety Council reports that victims of mobbing spend up to 52 percent of their time at work defending themselves, networking for support, thinking about the situation, losing motivation and becoming stressed.[8] Protecting employees from mobbing is critical to organizational productivity and overall success.

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, many co-workers actively participate or are complicit in mobbing, succumbing to peer pressure more frequently associated with children and teens. Despite the fact that mobbing is far more prevalent than other destructive behaviours such as sexual harassment and racial discrimination, which are prohibited by legislation, in Canada only the province of Quebec has legislation to protect workers against mobbing.

To combat mobbing in the workplace, organizations need to integrate their violence and harassment policy; provide education and training that ensures employees know how to recognize mobbing; and provides concrete ways for colleagues to recognize and talk about mental health issues in general.  Managers in particular can contribute to a positive work environment if they have the skills and knowledge to identify and respond to issues before they escalate.

See Printable Resources for sample bullying and mobbing policies. These types of policies can inform staff that they can request supports (accommodations), which can help employees with mental health issues thrive.  Moreover, the organization protects itself from the legal liability of not meeting their duty to accommodate employees with disabilities.

Case study:



[1] Workplace Bullying Institute “Workplace Bullying Survey,” (2007) http://www.workplacebullying.org/research/WBI-Zogby2007Survey.html (accessed July 31, 2009).

[2] Canadian Mental Health Association, “Violence and mental illness fact sheet,” www.cmha.ca/bins/content_page.asp?cid=3-108&lang=1 (accessed February 12, 2010).

[3] J.E. Arboleda-Florez and H.L. Stuart. “A public health perspective on violent offenses among persons with mental illness,” Psychiatric services 52 (2001): 654-9.

[4] Helen Keleher and Rebecca Armstrong, “Evidence based mental health promotion resource,” Melbourne, Dept. of Human Services, (2006). www.health.vic.gov.au/healthpromotion/downloads/mental_health_resource.pdf (accessed January 6, 2010).

[5] D. Pugen, & B. Ratelband, “Ontario Government Unveils Workplace Violence and Harassment McCarthy TétraultMcCarthy TétraultMcCarthy TétraultLegislation,” McCarthy Tetrault, (2009) McCarthy Tétraulthttp://www.mccarthy.ca/article_detail.aspx?id=4500

[6] Commission for Occupational Safety and Health, “Bullying in the Workplace,” Government of Western Australia, (2006). http://www.commerce.wa.gov.au/worksafe/PDF/Codes_of_Practice/Code_violence.pdf (accessed: Sept. 21, 2009).

[7] Mental Health Works, “Cubicle bullies: “Mobbing” at work,” Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario, http://www.mentalhealthworks.ca/articles/mobbing_at_work.asp (accessed January 6, 2010).

[8] Canada Safety Council, “Bullying in the Workplace,” http://safety-council.org/workplace-safety/bullying-in-the-workplace/ (accessed on November 30, 2009).