When Words in the Workplace Hurt

Everyone knows the old expression, “Stick and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Meant to encourage children to steel themselves against teasing or name-calling, the rhyme has endured as timeless, common-sense wisdom.

But as the world evolves, that old advice (“just ignore it”) is becoming less prevalent. Society is slowly becoming more willing to acknowledge that words DO have power. Words can hurt just as much as any physical injury. One good example of that growing acknowledgment is the WSIB’s new Chronic Mental Stress policy, which includes workplace bullying and harassment.

The magnitude of the problem is huge: a recent survey found that “Canadian employees report workplace stress as the primary cause of their mental health problems or illness, with depression and anxiety noted as the top two issues.”

What exactly is considered workplace harassment?  The Occupational Health and Safety Act defines it as “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. The definition of workplace harassment includes workplace sexual harassment.”

What does that really mean? We can look to the “Code of practice to address workplace harassment” for some concrete examples, such as:

  • offensive or intimidating comments or jokes;
  • bullying or aggressive behaviour;
  • displaying or circulating offensive pictures or materials;
  • inappropriate staring;
  • workplace sexual harassment;
  • isolating or making fun of a worker because of gender identity
  • unwelcome solicitation or advances from a manager, supervisor or another person who has the power to reward or punish the worker.

Current events (like the #metoo movement) and legislation such as Bill 132: Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act have also paved the way to bring these issues out into the open. In the months after Bill 132 came into law, the Ministry of Labour reported that complaints of workplace harassment had more than doubled.

Every employee has just as much as right to a psychologically safe workplace as a physically safe one. If you’re currently experiencing workplace harassment, this fact sheet provides some good information on what steps you can take. To pursue a WSIB claims for mental stress or other workplace injury, please feel free to contact our office for assistance.