Updated Sat. Mar. 8 2008 8:40 AM ET
The Canadian Press
TORONTO -- Workers who are subjected to putdowns, continuous criticism or off-colour remarks while on the job could be dealing with something more serious than a temporary blow to the ego, a new study suggests.
Findings from two Canadian researchers indicate workplace bullying appears to be more harmful to employees than those experiencing sexual harassment.
Study authors Sandy Hershcovis of the University of Manitoba and Julian Barling from Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., reviewed 110 studies conducted over 21 years that looked at sexual harassment and workplace aggression, which includes bullying, incivility and interpersonal conflict.
From a total of 128 samples used with sizes ranging from 1,491 to 53,470 people, 46 included subjects who experienced sexual harassment, 86 experienced workplace aggression, while six experienced both.
The studies selected examined workplace aggression and sexual harassment in relation to one or more specific outcomes like job satisfaction, stress, turnover and psychological health.
While researchers found both bullying and sexual harassment can lead to negative on-the-job environments and unhealthy consequences for employees, it was cases involving workplace aggression where more severe consequences surfaced.
Workers who were bullied, experienced incivility or dealt with interpersonal conflict were more likely to leave their jobs and have a lessened well-being, researchers said.
They were also less satisfied with their jobs and enjoyed less satisfying relationships with their superiors than workers who were sexually harassed.
Hershcovis said the findings were both surprising and unexpected.
"I think the assumption going in would for sure have been that sexual harassment was going to have worse outcomes than workplace aggression just because of the moral taint associated with sexual harassment,'' she said in an interview from Washington where the paper was being presented at the Seventh International Conference on Work, Stress and Health Saturday.
Hershcovis said a question for future researchers to explore are the reasons workplace aggression appears to have stronger adverse effects.
One possible reason offered in the paper is that victims of sexual harassment have more outlets at their disposal.
"It's illegal, so they can sue the company. They can report, they can try to grieve it if they have a union,'' Hershcovis said. "There are a number of ways that they can try to respond to this negative behaviour, whereas workplace aggression really doesn't have that available.''
Quebec was the first jurisdiction in Canada to introduce legislation outlawing workplace bullying.
The amendment to the Quebec Labour Standards Act, which took effect in June 2004, outlaws "vexatious behaviour'' that takes the form of repeated insults, vulgar remarks or gestures that are offensive, demeaning and undermine a person's self-esteem.
Gerry Smith, vice-president of organizational health and training for Shepell.fgi, first worked as an employee assistance program counsellor with the company in the 1990s.
He said workplace bullying takes a "huge toll'' on individuals facing it, and can recall dealing with many cases over the years where those being targeted became very stressed out.
"They're still productive and they still do their job, but they go home at night, they don't sleep, they don't eat,'' said Smith, whose company provides support around mental, physical and social health to some 8.5 million employees at 6,000 Canadian companies.
"They develop an obsession around it and mainly because they have to face the same kind of behaviour every single day in their workplace because it's relentless. The bully is relentless. They just won't let go until somebody stands up to them and tells them they've got to stop it.''
Smith, author of "Work Rage,'' said the best strategy for individuals who find themselves subject to workplace aggression is to go straight to the source, challenge the behaviour and state their expectations for the future that it won't continue.
"Now, that's very difficult to empower people to do that because lots of people think it might not be a career-enhancing move -- especially if the offender is your boss,'' he said.
"So if it's the case go to your boss' boss. It's that simple. And nowadays, the person who's in a position of superiority has to take the complaint seriously.''
"You have to set up a process within your organization where a person can make a legitimate complaint and know that that complaint is going to be handled discreetly, effectively and without recrimination or reprisal."