SUMMARY: Violent, threatening or harassing behaviour should never be acceptable in the workplace. It should not be dependent on whether an employee has a mental health issue. Having effective and enforceable policies in place can be a first step to preventing violence in workplaces.

Understand the issue

  • Consult your legal advisor if you suspect that mental illness is a factor in violent or aggressive behaviour before engaging in disciplinary action. Ensure you are in compliance with applicable human rights legislation.
  • Studies have shown that people living with mental health conditions are no more likely to engage in violent behaviour than the general population. Experiences of discrimination and violence can result in psychological distress and feelings of low self-esteem, as well as anxiety and depression. (Reprinted from Canadian Mental Health Association, 2011, Violence and Mental Health; Unpacking a Complex Issue, a discussion paper.) For these reasons, violence, threats of violence, harassment and acts of aggression in the workplace should be responded to swiftly and effectively.
  • Unaddressed conflict among co-workers may contribute to unhealthy and potentially dangerous workplaces.
  • Unaddressed harassment has been a primary factor for violence in some workplaces.
  • Issues should be resolved promptly, seeking assistance from outside resources where necessary.
  • Previous violent or aggressive behaviour is the best predictor of violent or aggressive behaviour.

Develop a policy

  • Define acts of violence, including threats of violent action against personnel and company property.
  • Declare that the organization will not tolerate violent or aggressive behaviour.
  • Describe disciplinary action that will be taken for offenders, in strict terms.
  • Ask employees not to intervene but to call their manager or 911.
  • Ensure the policy outlines what employees are to do in extreme situations, e.g. gun wielding, hostage taking, etc.
  • Refer to your Code of Conduct where appropriate and as it applies to the policy.
  • Assess your organization for common areas of risk associated with workplace violence, including:
    • previous violent or aggressive behaviour
    • recurring instances of bullying or harassment
    • unresolved or recurring conflict
  • Ensure the policy clearly outlines:
    • The process for responding to acts of violence or reporting an incident of violence.
    • How to complete an incident report.
    • The employees' responsibilities during an investigation.
  • Ensure the policy specifically addresses process for conflict resolution.
  • Have the policy reviewed by legal counsel and senior leaders

Communicate the policy

  • Announce and communicate highlights of the policy to all employees, including senior leaders.
  • Have the appropriate company officer distribute a copy of the policy to all managers and supervisors with instructions about what is expected of them in carrying out the policy.
  • Have all employees acknowledge in writing or by e-mail that they have received and read the policy.
  • Post the policy prominently in a place where all employees will see it and have regular access to it, and promptly post any amendments to the policy.
  • Ensure all new employees receive a copy of the policy when hired.
  • Ask managers to schedule an annual discussion about this policy with their staff.

Develop processes and procedures

  • Develop and implement procedures for reporting all incidents of violence including recurring incidents of bullying and harassment in the workplace.
    Make sure employees know:
    • What to do and who to talk to when threatened by violence in the workplace.
    • That, if the organization chooses, the process of reporting will allow for the use of a personal advocate for either parties. People experiencing mental health issues often don't have the stamina to engage in this process on their own.
    • How to initiate a complaint. 
    • The procedures to resolve a complaint. 
    • How the employee reporting will be protected. 
    • What will be expected of them in an investigation.
  • Develop and implement procedures for investigating, following up and recording incidents involving violence.
  • Ensure investigation procedures clearly set out the processes that will be followed, including:
    • Who will conduct the investigation.
    • How the complaint will be investigated.
    • The rights of involved parties to representation.
    • An approximate timeline.
    • A mechanism for appealing a decision.
  • Annually review the policy and processes to ensure they continue to meet workplace needs and concerns.

Develop organizational strategies

  • Take steps to prevent or minimize the risk of workplace violence by developing a psychologically healthy workplace for employees focused on:
    • Resolving workplace issues.
    • Improving the quality of performance feedback.
    • Ensuring all employees are treated fairly and reasonably.
    • Communicating openly at all levels.
    • Increasing management accountability by setting goals.
  • Ensure that the organization's direction for workplace safety is reflected and highlighted into corporate and service-specific goals.
  • Ensure a timely response to disruptive and violent behaviour.
  • Conduct ongoing risk assessments for workplace violence.
  • Advocate for action to prevent workplace violence at the system level, working with:

    Governments

    • Advocate for legislation that demands violence-free workplaces with zero tolerance for verbal, physical, emotional or sexual violence, if it does not already exist in your jurisdiction.
    • Review inquest reports regarding workplace violence to learn from the recommendations made.
    • Call on and offer to work with governments in developing and implementing multi-sector strategies that involve the collaboration of workplaces, the community and government.

    Research experts

    • Partner with experts in workplace violence to help increase knowledge about workplace and occupational-specific violence that may be affecting your workplace.

    Accreditation bodies

    • Encourage your organization's affiliated accreditation bodies to develop and adopt standards about workplace violence.

    Professional, union and regulatory bodies

    • Work with your organization's professional, union and regulatory bodies, where appropriate, to ensure consistent messaging about workplace safety.
    • Collaboratively review and respond to the efforts of other organizations and workplaces to minimize workplace violence and enhance workplace safety.

Provide training to leaders and managers

  • Provide training to managers on the organization's violence prevention policy and procedures, and ensure that managers have the skills to recognize and deal with violent behaviour.
  • Integrate violence prevention into leadership development and education programs.
  • Provide all managers with conflict resolution training that specifically considers mental health concerns.
  • Have managers collaborate with team members to develop team/departmental practices, policies and expectations related to respectful behaviour.
  • Have managers be aware of and work with team members to prevent behaviours that can foster anger, mistrust, insecurity or violence. This can include activities such as gossiping, bullying, socially isolating others, pushing, yelling, or throwing things. 

Educate employees

  • Provide information and education to staff about the impact of violence in the workplace, and on life and relationships.
  • Ensure that everyone in your workplace, including consultants, apprentices and students have the opportunity to learn how to respond to workplace violence and keep themselves safe.
  • Ensure adherence to workplace health and safety standards.
  • Ensure employees know how to follow organizational processes that require mandatory reporting of potential workplace violence activities.
  • Educate employees on how to support colleagues who may be experiencing violence and encouraging those colleagues to come forward.
  • Have employees contribute to the development of organizational processes that aim to eliminate workplace violence and increase workplace health and safety.

The Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace produced a series of videos to help address stigma related to employing people with serious mental illness. 

David Williams talks about his experiences as an employer, dispelling fears about employee violence when serious mental illness is a factor.