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  • Kelly VanBuskirk

Business Risk: Employees Being Bullied to Death

In 2020, the labour and employment law spotlight will continue to shine on the thorny subject of workplace harassment. Most of Canada’s federal and provincial governments have already implemented workplace anti-violence and harassment laws, while Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island will roll out new regulations in 2020. In Canada’s smallest province, the contentious case concerning Eric Donovan’s workplace-related heart failure has been especially sobering and has sparked new discussions about managerial harassment. Although an investigator retained by the P.E.I. Workers Compensation Board initially concluded that Mr. Donovan’s death had been caused by workplace harassment, an Appeals Tribunal issued a slightly different conclusion late this past summer, finding that the victim’s death was related to workplace stress arising from workplace conflict:


The evidence, therefore, indicates that, within a condensed period of time, the Worker was dealing with work-related conflict, the physical trauma of having sustained a workplace injury, feelings that they were alone and unsupported in the workplace, pressure to teach a training course that they Worker felt mentally and physically unprepared to do, and concerns about whether the return to work was premature and would create a risk for re-injury. There is also evidence that, particularly in the days immediately prior to the collapse, there were observable changes to the Worker’s demeanor and physical appearance. In addition, the Worker is reported to have expressed to various family members, friends, co-workers and health care providers the depth of the Worker’s feelings, including feeling the stress to be “intolerable” and “the most stress [they] had ever been under”. In the circumstances, we are, accordingly, of the view that the evidence supports the IRO’s conclusion that the Worker experienced significant work-related stress in the period leading up to the cardiac event on October 31, 2013.


P.E.I. WCAT Decision 361, 33,34 of 40


For employers the practical and legal risks of employees’ deaths due to bullying should not be overlooked. On this point, just last month a labour tribunal in Japan ruled that a young engineer’s suicide had been motivated by his manager’s abusive conduct: https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20191119/p2a/00m/0bu/007000c.


In that case, a young engineer who had accepted employment with Toyota after completing a Master’s degree was denigrated by his supervisor to the point that he developed a psychological disorder and eventually killed himself:


All too often… the man was rebuked by his immediate boss, who hurled such insults as "idiot" and "stupid" at him. One time, the boss even told him, "You'd better die." At other times, the superior would ask him, "Are you taking your task lightly?" and "You are not motivated to do your job, are you?" While being driven into a corner, the man kept taking notes of what his boss had told him. The worker took leave from July 2016 and was diagnosed as suffering from an adjustment disorder.


When he returned to work in October the same year, he was assigned to a different group from the one under the control of his boss. However, he was made to sit diagonally in front of his superior. The worker confided to his colleagues that he wanted to have his seat switched. When placed under pressure from work, his hands and legs shivered, and he would make mistakes with even simple tasks. Papers piled up on his desk, making him jitter. He told those close to him, "I'm reaching my breaking point," and "I feel like I'm a slave to this company." He even stated that he wanted to die.


“Power harassment” is also alleged in another Japanese case which centers on the suicide of a young pharmacy worker whose family is suing their daughter’s employer for negligence in failing to adequately protect her from her supervisor’s harassment: https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20190427/p2a/00m/0na/013000c


What employers should take away from all of this is a recognition that the psychological impacts of workplace bullying and harassment can be widespread and devastating, and they’re being experienced all over the world. It’s unlikely that legal claims arising from these incidents will be subsiding any time soon, and employers should take the required time to fully assess and monitor their own risk factors. The health and safety of your employees depend on it.

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