One helluva story

Photograph of Glenn French, President and CEO of the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence.

Glenn French, President and CEO of the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence.

Glenn French has a helluva story to tell.

The President and CEO of the Canadian Initiative on Workplace violence provided the keynote speech after two days of meetings by OPSEU’s Mental Health Division.

He spoke about a cleaner in a long-term residential facility in Newfoundland.

The man was well-liked and enjoyed his work.

One day he was struck with a lamp by a resident in a senseless act of violence.

While his colleagues quickly attended to the perpetrator of the act, nobody attended to the cleaner, who took himself off to what he perceived would be a safe place. It was an hour before anyone had thought to give any attention to the victim.

French says that when violence happens in the workplace it has a ripple effect, like a stone being thrown into a pond.

The worker no longer enjoyed his work. There was fear and anxiety in the workplace that this would happen again. Given its random nature, nobody was sure who the next victim would be.

It also affected the relationship his colleagues had to their work, both among those who witnessed the act and those who heard about it afterwards.

And it affected residents in the facility’s care.

The change in the cleaner also affected relationships with his family. It changed his life.

Six months after the cleaner retired from a job that had lost its fulfillment, he died.

This is a common story. For many in the room there was acknowledgement how similar acts had changed the lives of their colleagues, had changed their own lives.

After an incident of workplace violence, French says it is important to learn from the situation and to not only take action, but to be openly seen to be taking action.

That is a big challenge to many of our employers who worry about public perception when such acts take place. When you are in the midst of combating the effects of stigma in mental health, the notion of talking openly about such incidents has double jeopardy.

French says that without an appropriate response the workplace culture can quickly disintegrate.

We’ve spent two days talking about this issue in relation to the workplace our members encounter trying to do their best for Ontarians with a mental illness. It is by no means confined there, although the lack of funding to mental health is also having a ripple effect of its own on the number of incidents that are taking place.

The cynicism and bad culture has already infected many of these workplaces.

From the union’s perspective, such cynicism makes it difficult to address the issue. If workers perceive that there is no point in filling out an incident report, when there is no debriefing, when blame is cast back on them, the tendency is to just let it all slide.

That only makes the situation worse given the evidence is then lacking on the extent of the problem.

In many ways we don’t know much about workplace violence.

Nobody is keeping count to see if it is on an overall rise in Canada. In some of our workplaces we know that to be true by the reports that do filter into the joint occupational health and safety committees. We are not seeing any aggregate data.

Each year there is moral outrage when an act of violence like the recent Nanaimo sawmill shootings takes place. Two workers were fatally shot in May, another two wounded.

The first question that always arises is, could anyone see this coming?

We all have a duty to do better, to play a role in reducing workplace violence.

Glenn French knows this very well. That cleaner? He was Glenn’s father.

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