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  • Elizabeth Eldridge

It’s Pink Shirt Day! How Does Your Workplace Handle Bullying?

Updated: Apr 18


Today Canadians from coast to coast are donning pink shirts as part of a large-scale anti-bullying campaign (learn more about Pink Shirt Day HERE). You’ve likely read or heard about the prevalence of bullying among young people and of the long-term consequences that being a victim of bullying can have on mental health, such as increasing susceptibility to depression, anxiety disorders, substance-related problems and more. While many Canadians associate Pink Shirt Day with initiatives that take place in schools and community organizations that focus on youth, it’s also an opportunity to acknowledge bullying in the workplace. Bullying is unfortunately as common among adults as it is with kids and teens but often takes subtler forms, which can make it more difficult to address.


Stigma related to mental health problems expresses itself through bullying all too often. Stigma is the perception that a certain attribute, such as experiencing a mental health issue or living with a chronic mental illness, makes a person unacceptably different from others. This belief leads to prejudice and discrimination, and sometimes even harassment and bullying. We’ve coined a handy acronym to help you recognize stigma for what it is, because it’s not always blatantly obvious.


Ask yourself whether an attitude or action has a RING to it. Does it…


Ridicule or make fun of someone who’s struggling with their mental health?

“Steer clear of Susan today, her bipolar’s kicking in!” Mental health problems are not a joking matter. When language meant to describe mental illness is thrown around in an insensitive way, it diminishes and pokes fun at the very real struggle many individuals are faced with every day. You wouldn’t make fun of someone for having cancer, diabetes or another physical health issue. Think of mental health problems the same way. P.S. One of our previous Blog posts delves into language mis-use in detail – if you missed it, check it out HERE.


Isolate a person or ostracize them from peer groups in the workplace?

“Aww, you’re not going to ask Allan to work on this project with us, are you? He’s been going on and on about his depression – he’s just been a total downer. Why don’t we have him work on Task X instead? That way he can do it on his own.” While it’s important (and legally required) that employers make reasonable accommodations for mental distress, it’s not appropriate for individuals to decide on changes to a co-worker’s duties when the request hasn’t been made by the person themselves. Deliberately avoiding a person who’s struggling with their mental health will likely make them feel even more alone. Inclusion and equity are cornerstones of mentally healthy workplaces.


Negate or trivialize mental health problems?

“Krista called in sick again today. Must be nice! I’ve felt a little down before, like we all do from time to time, but I still show up for work.” If someone has disclosed that they’re battling depression or another mental health issue, it has likely taken a lot of courage for them to do so. When that’s met by a lack of understanding it can make a person less likely to reach out for help in the future. Understand that mental illnesses are diagnosable (and treatable) medical conditions, which is very different than a brief emotional experience or reaction (like feeling sad).


Generalize or make assumptions about a person who’s struggling with their mental health, or about mental health problems overall?

“I don’t think Sam would be a good fit for a leadership position. She’s been open about having anxiety issues in the past so she’s not going to be able to handle the stress that would come along with the job.” The journey to recovery from mental distress varies tremendously from person to person. Recognize that every individual is different, every mental health problem is different and what a person needs in order to feel well supported at work is different. When a person is working hard to get well, the sense of satisfaction they get from their work or taking on a new challenge can actually play an important part in their recovery. You know what they say about making assumptions!


If you’ve been a victim of workplace bullying, reach out to a trusted leader. Being a victim of bullying, especially long-term, can have serious ill effects on your mental health and can even constitute trauma. If you’re not able to access effective support that results in putting a stop to what’s going on, your province’s Labour Relations Board (find yours HERE) and the Canadian Human Rights Commission (click HERE) can provide you with information about next steps. Just like there cannot be an expectation that employees will engage in work tasks that pose an obvious danger to physical safety, the same rules apply to an employee’s right to flag and disengage from situations which are psychologically unsafe.


Another idea we can apply to potentially unsafe situations with respect to both physical and mental health is, “If you see something, say something.” If you recognize that someone is being targeted by a co-worker, don’t stand idly by. If you don’t feel comfortable addressing the situation yourself report the behaviour to a manager or member of your Human Resources team. If you want to arm yourself with more tools to help you navigate issues like this, consider joining us for one of our Mentally Healthy Workplace seminars where we explore stigma, the RING acronym and much more (register for a session near you HERE).


On Pink Shirt Day and the other 364 days of the year, let’s take a stand against workplace bullying. We all have a role to play in keeping our workplaces psychologically safe and healthy.


#resilientemployees #thrivingworkplaces #pinkshirtday

Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.

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