A tricky modern dilemma
Workplace bullying and sexual harassment are a form of violence leading to depression
THE modern workplace is not a garden of friendly Buddhas smiling upon us – it has become cutting-edge, cutthroat, and is a breeding ground for interpersonal violence, inclusive of bullying and (sexual) harassment. In South Africa, the country’s notorious problem with violence in broader society is perhaps partly to blame.
Yet, when workplace bullying or harassment intersects with employee depression, this could be a problem that very few workplaces can cope with.
Despite their core right to physical and psychological integrity, millions of workers worldwide suffer from the scars of workplace violence; nevertheless, South African employers and lawmakers remain sluggish in their responses. South Africa has yet to sign the International Labour Organisation Convention 109/2019 dealing with and preventing all forms of violence against women and men in the workplace.
The Revised Draft Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace (dated March 30, 2021), inclusive of sexual harassment, bullying, and racial harassment, has been tendered before Parliament once again. This is, however, merely a guiding document that encourages employers to adopt policies in this regard, and there is no sanction for non-compliance with such a code.
In their 2019 research, Escribano et al. suggest that violence at work refers to “intentional verbal and physical actions (verbal abuse, physical assaults, harassment, bullying, intimidation, threatening, discrimination, etc.)”, all within a specific organisational culture (Escribano, Beneit and Garcia, 2019:4). Workplace violence, the authors continue, is a form of aggression intended to cause physical or psychological harm, which, in turn, challenges the safety, well-being and health of professionals and affects entire organisations.
Workplace violence, of which bullying and sexual harassment form an integral part, not only leads to physical harm, but also includes non-physical harm such as cognitive effects (disbelief and a threat to personal integrity), emotional effects (anger and sadness), social effects (insecurity, impaired relationships with colleagues, and damage to social identity), and, of course, psychological effects (such as anxiety, irritability, depression and, at its worst, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
South African employees come to work already stressed and anxious, and then we add bullying and sexual harassment to these workplaces, and yet we expect high performance from our employees. Societal violence in South Africa is problematic. We have been dubbed the rape capital of the world – with a sexual offence being reported every 25 seconds; an average of 58 murders are reported per day, and a general increase in interpersonal crime year on year has been reported by Stats SA. The most vulnerable remain females in a working environment.
In South Africa, bullying is not a cause of action in itself; the New Amended Draft Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace (dated March 30, 2021) has been tabled before Parliament again but has not yet been signed into law. According to this guiding document, bullying is seen as a form of violence and harassment in South Africa, and employers are merely encouraged to adopt policies in line with ILO Convention 109/2019.
Bullying is reportedly the most adverse type of social behaviour worldwide. It includes not only physical behaviour, but also psychological “warfare”. It can occur as a once-off act or as repeated negative acts perpetrated over time.
The ill effects of bullying on the targets thereof include depression, physical ill health, increased stress responses and PTSD, and it presents major problems that need to be addressed in itself. Sexual harassment
There is no firm definition of sexual harassment in South Africa, but a Code of Good Practice dealing with Sexual Harassment at work (which forms part of the Employment Equity Act), sets out a test and places obligations on employers and employees. The employer could be held vicariously liable in terms of certain legal requirements if an employee is guilty of sexual harassment.
There are no reliable statistics to indicate the severity of the problem, which is regarded as a gap in the law pertaining to sexual harassment in South Africa. What is known is that “toxic masculinity” and the power differential are some of the reasons sexual harassment is still rife in South Africa.
In one study, 65% of bullying victims displayed symptoms of depression up to five years after having been bullied.
A grey area in South African law is where depression does not lead to disability, but the depressed employee has to be reasonably accommodated by the employer; this presents a problem that needs to be addressed in future.
Many employees lose or leave their jobs after bullying or when they are targets of sexual harassment. In a country such as ours where unemployment figures have reached an all-time high and the loss of a job is equated to a “financial death sentence”, we need to pay attention to workplace violence, bullying, and harassment, and take note of depression as an ill-effect that should not only be managed in the workplace, but also be prevented.