We need to talk about workplace abuse

By Faye Wai

5 min read

We need to talk about workplace abuse
Image by Jimmy Foulds

Workplace abuse is a real problem. Oh yes, it’s as real as it gets. Have you ever come back from work with tears welling up in your eyes? I know I have.

According to a 2020 survey, more than half of Canadians have experienced this issue in the workplace.

And wow—49% of Canadians are prepared to jump ship, leaving their current jobs. Out of these respondents, over a quarter have actually switched jobs due to harassment at work. Good for all of you and your courage!

What’s considered workplace abuse?

Anyone can be a bully. But how do you identify one? The situation at hand is often complex and delicate. The Canada Safety Council lists several archetypes of bullies including critics, controlling, passive-aggressive, and even raging bullies. Sound familiar?

You’re not alone—abusive behaviours are more than common. Here are just some of the ways it can manifest:

  • Verbal: humiliation, threats, jokes, yelling
  • Performance-related: sabotage, blame, unfairness, demanding for overwork
  • Threatening: exclusion, stalking, privacy invasion, unreasonable criticism

The impact of harassment in the workplace

Surprisingly, the survey above indicates that only a third of the people who experienced workplace abuse discussed the situation with their friends or family. This is concerning and can lead to feelings of helplessness and isolation. On top of that, bullying can have drastic consequences on both the individual and the overall work environment. Let’s take a look:

Impact on the individual

Imagine being constantly fearful of interacting with your boss or your teammates. That sounds awful, doesn't it? Being on the receiving end of workplace abuse can lead to severe mental health problems stemming from increased stress, anxiety, insomnia, and constantly worrying even during time off. This can manifest into absenteeism as people dread going to work and report a loss of motivation, including low self-esteem, and losing interest in the job.

Impact on the overall workplace

When someone's been the subject of workplace abuse, it’s common to see team cohesion lost due to a lack of psychological safety and trust. This change in internal dynamics often results in lower employee engagement and involvement by the individual. We probably all know how much relationships and connections can affect our mood and attitude towards work. Consequently, management can expect financial loss from decreased productivity, high turnover, and increased absences.

Managing workplace abuse

The bad news: it turns out that 61% of bullying comes from the boss or supervisor. The Workplace Bullying Institute says that another 33% comes from co-workers, while the remaining 6% stems from people at the lower end of the ladder.

So how do you address and manage these circumstances, especially when this possibly involves your direct manager?

First things first: know that you’re not alone. Don’t blame yourself. Remember, you can only control one side of the situation!

Seek information and support

When you’re feeling vulnerable, family, loved ones, and co-workers might be able to offer the support and understanding you need. If that’s unavailable, consider seeking out a therapist who can objectively guide you through conflict resolution.

Apart from support, you’ll need crucial information to decide what action to take next. Consult your employee handbook, senior leadership, or your labour union for the proper protocol of handling specific situations.

Resolving the incident(s)

It’s tricky, I know. But try and request a time to meet where you can confront the other party in a professional setting. Direct communication might be uncomfortable, but it’s a great way to listen for subtle cues, stressors, or misunderstandings.

Document, document, document! Keep track of all actions in writing; location, date, time, and any witnesses. If you’ve received comments or emails, save any physical evidence that demonstrates ill motives and/or actions.

And perhaps the most important: establish your boundaries and protect them. These resolution scenarios should only happen if and when you’re comfortable doing so. This ensures you’re maintaining a calm and polite composure when handling sensitivities.

Request third party mediation

If you’re following internal complaint processes, let your senior management know there’s a problem and seek assistance from them. HR is often involved here, so if you don’t feel safe talking to your direct manager, you can opt to speak to someone removed from your team.

When to know it’s time to leave

Sometimes there are other things that keep you from calling it quits. But when does it reach the point of no return? If harassment isn’t addressed in a swift manner with the appropriate adjustments, the work environment might just be one that brews and tolerates such abusive behavior. And when the workplace is toxic enough that it’s affecting your mental and physical health, it’s time to move on.

Leaders, how do we change and handle these situations?

Work-related abuse is a serious issue, and we’ve covered how it affects individuals and the workplace. But how should we help and set an example, as leaders? There are numerous methods to promote a healthy work environment for everyone—especially when bullying can often be hard to recognize.

Onboarding and policies

The first 90-days of starting a new job is when most people absorb the principles of working there. Documents are helpful guides during onboarding. When coming across a new hire, we’re often giddy with delight and excited for the fresh eyes and input. But what happens when you’ve introduced a bad apple to the crew? Concrete policies on workplace harassment and a clear zero-tolerance policy can set the tone upfront and clarify any behavior standards your employees need to know.


When you’re on the receiving end of harassment, it’s common to feel powerless. That’s why you should always aim to learn what your teammates are experiencing. Org-wide pulse surveys and team-level polls are useful tools to understand the collective sentiment and atmosphere within the group.

Stay in regular contact

Learning and development workshops on a regular basis are helpful to refresh your employees on proper workplace behavior or introduce policy updates. Make sure you have a clear internal communications calendar and keep track of announcements so they stay top of mind.


In our changing world of work, there are greater demands for inclusion and understanding of individual employee needs. Taking the necessary steps to increase respect and prevent workplace abuse will benefit the health of your employees as well as the overall company culture. On the individual level, know that there are safe steps to combat the problem, and make sure your personal wellness takes priority.


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Faye Wai

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