U of S researchers looking to make a change in healthcare

A group of researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are recruiting licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, and continuing care assistants from the Saskatoon Health Region for a study to try to find a solution to the problem of workplace harassment in the healthcare sector.

“We know that although there’s no national study in Canada about the prevalence (of workplace harassment), we know that it falls within the range of 10-40 per cent of employees,” said Dr. Elizabeth Quinlan with the department of sociology, one of the researchers on the project.

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The purpose of the project is to bring together people in the healthcare sector and try to figure out solutions to the problem of workplace harassment.

“We know in general that the rates of harassment are fairly high, but there’s evidence that they are especially high in public sector workplaces like healthcare,” she said.

In this case, harassment or bullying refers to “an action or behaviour intended to degrade or to offend” and takes place in a relationship where there’s a power imbalance. Bullying is a sustained pattern, while harassment can be a single serious occurrence that has a lasting harmful effect. Examples of harassment are withholding important pieces of information that employees need, isolating employees by not inviting them to important meetings or social events, or behaviour that is meant to intimidate and belittle. Quinlan stresses that harassment does not include changes in work assignments, job evaluations, or implementation of a dress code.

The consequences are costly, both in terms of mental health and actual dollars. People who are harassed at work can experience anxiety, sleep disturbances, depression, and sometimes suicide. The employer has to pay the price too: harassed employees waste time defending themselves and networking for support, or taking sick leave. Quinlan said that one-third of workplace disability claims are mental health claims.

“Not all are related to harassment, but many are,” she said. “It has a huge dollar impact on the employer.”

Several provinces have introduced legislation to deal with workplace harassment. This project is meant to be a complementary solution to legislation. Quinlan’s research has found that solutions to workplace harassment are more successful if they’re participatory, meaning  they involve a larger number of people in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of solutions.  Legislation typically focuses on creating a formalized complaint process, which can have a variety of problems – they’re emotionally exhausting, they’re time consuming, and they’re risky because the complainant still has to work in the toxic environment, but now they’re known to be a troublemaker.

The purpose of the study is to bring together healthcare workers for “participatory theatre,” essentially role-playing solution, and figure out what works.

“We need something other than these top down solutions,” Quinlan said. “Our approach in using participatory theatre is that it’s a bottom up way of changing the culture in the workplace.”

Participants don’t need to have acting experience – they just have to want to find a solution to workplace harassment.

“It’s even better if people don’t have that background,” she said. “The aim is not Hollywood … The intention is to use theatre as a way of exploring the problem.”

The researchers are planning to start the workshops as soon as there are enough participants signed up, which will likely be in the fall. Participants will be compensated for lost wages and travel expenses. The workshops will take about two days, and some participants will be invited to participate in focus groups and interviews for about six months afterward, though they don’t need to be available that whole time.

“It’s in their best interest if they’re interested in looking for solutions for the problem of workplace harassment,” Quinlan said.

Other people involved with the project are Beth Bilson (College of Law) Isobel Findlay (Edwards School of Business), and Anne-Marie Urban (Faculty of Nursing at University of Regina.) Also involved in the project are the Saskatchewan Association of Licensed Practical Nurses (SALPN), Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU-West), Saskatchewan Registered Nurses’ Association (SRNA), and Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN).

For more information or to show interest in a workshop, contact the project co-ordinator, Susan Robertson, at (306) 966-2363 or by email at which.sk@usask.ca, or visit the website at www.whichsk.com.

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