A better normal must mean tackling workplace violence and harassment

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Manal Azzi, Senior Specialist, Occupational Safety and Health

Violence and harassment is a persistent and pernicious issue in the world of work.

It transcends national boundaries, socioeconomic conditions, occupational sectors and working arrangements. It can manifest itself between co-workers, managers and subordinates, or between workers and their clients or the public, threatening the safety and health of all those subjected to it.

Violence and harassment takes different and shifting forms, not just physical or sexual. Psychological harassment, in particular, can be insidious and abusive in the most subtle of ways, and the mental toll it takes can lead at times to suicide.

The negative impact on workers’ well-being also affects businesses, contributing to absences from work and increased staff turnover, related to fear, illness and injury. These changes imply significant costs for enterprises, and can also damage productivity and performance.

During the current public health crisis, violence and harassment has appeared to increase. The unprecedented restrictions imposed on people during the pandemic have exacerbated stress levels. In some cases, this has led to violence and harassment being directed against essential personnel, healthcare workers and others on the pandemic frontlines.

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© Nenad Stojkovic

There have been reports of doctors in Wuhan, China, being beaten and threatened in overcrowded hospitals. Essential workers in grocery shops have been subjected to violence and harassment when those stores ran out of supplies. More recently, a security guard in the United States was killed attempting to enforce a policy of wearing face masks in a store.

There has never been a more important time to recognize and address the causes and manifestations of work-related violence and harassment. A new ILO report, Safe and healthy working environments free from violence and harassment, does just that. It examines the scope of violence and harassment in the world of work and looks at existing occupational safety and health frameworks, initiatives and areas of action for preventing and addressing workplace psychosocial risks, including better Occupational Safety and Health management systems and training.

Last year, at the Centenary International Labour Conference, the ILO’s 187 member States adopted the groundbreaking Violence and Harassment Convention (No. 190) and accompanying Recommendation (No. 206). In doing this, they defined a global commitment to eliminating this scourge.

However, such an overarching commitment needs to be backed by grassroots action. Systems, cultures and individuals that perpetuate such harassment or allow it to continue need to be called out and corrected. We all want to build a ‘better normal’, post-COVID. Workplaces free from violence and harassment should be part of that equation.

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