Workplace harassment and violence impacts over 70% of employees in Canada, study shows

A new study which looked at harassment and violence in Canadian workplaces has found that over 70 per cent of workers have experienced at least one form of harassment in their workplace. 

All types of workplaces across Canada were examined from October 2020 to April 2021

A study has found that over 70 per cent of employees have experienced at least one form of harassment in the workplace. (Shutterstock/

A study looking at harassment and violence in Canadian workplaces has found that 71.4 per cent of workers have experienced at least one form of harassment and abuse in their workplace last year. 

Researchers from Western University, the University of Toronto and the Canadian Labour Congress examined all types of workplaces across Canada through surveys and interviews. These include corporations, service sectors, hospitality, private sectors, and blue-collar jobs. Forms of harassment included verbal, sexual, and online abuse, along with intimidating practices to sabotage work performance. 

Over 4,800 participants were surveyed from October 2020 to April 2021, and 34 people were interviewed. The majority of respondents were between 30 and 59 years old.

Those more likely to experience toxic work environments and sexual harassment are women, Indigenous peoples, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people of colour, according to the study. The majority of harassment experienced included sexual conversations (61 per cent), personal space or touching (60 per cent), sexual teasing or jokes (56 per cent), and unwanted looks or gestures (42 per cent).

Barb MacQuarrie, Community Director at the Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children at Western, said fields such as healthcare, education, social services, and public administration represented the majority of the survey sample size.

"Essentially, what you're seeing are people who have secure jobs, union representation, and mostly, well-paying jobs which offer better protections against workplace harassment," she said.

"So we can only imagine what's happening to people who don't have that security or a union protecting them."

Other factors considered were the impacts of harassment on the overall mental health and wellbeing of employees and their organizations, the role of COVID-19 and online abuse, along with barriers to reporting and potential repercussions. 

Workplace structures and resulting impacts

Adriana Berlingieri is an Aademic Research Associate at the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children. (Submitted by Western University)

One of the study's researchers, Adriana Berlingieri, said the consequences of toxic workplaces can be extremely severe and destroy not only careers, but also the lives of workers. 

"We tend to often only think about work, but their [workers'] relationships, children, health and so many parts of their lives are negatively affected by this," she said. 

MacQuarrie believes that workplace structures often give permission for harassment to occur. Managers don't necessarily need to be harassers but them turning a blind eye or playing favourites can open up opportunities. 

"It's the dynamic of having power over someone and exploiting that power. Things like racism and sexism play into this. It's anytime someone says 'you're less than me because you're different.'"

She added that that hostile work environments can also have an impact on employers and overall company efficiency. 

"If you have to replace a new worker for someone who isn't working at their full capacity because they're being harassed, that also represents a cost to the workplace."

COVID-19 and the rise of online harassment

Barb MacQuarrie is the Community Director at Western University's Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children. (Submitted by Western University)

MacQuarrie said the pandemic has been detrimental for many workers and has increased the severity, frequency, and duration of online harassment. 

"For some workers, in-person workplaces mitigated the way they were harassed. When they're isolated and there's nobody to see what's happening, it opens up more space for harassment.

"Virtual harassment plays an important role in this dynamic," she said. "A few years back, it wasn't even on our radars, but now it's become so predominant, it can't be overlooked." 

Berlingieri found that virtual workplaces were a relief for some other workers since they didn't have to physically go into their work environments, which is important to consider with conversations around returning to workspaces. 

"As more workplaces are deciding to either go remote or hybrid, this is something that we need to take really seriously," she said. 

Barriers to reporting

The study found that barriers to reporting continue to be a significant problem that is often rooted in workplace policies that employers may have in place but aren't using effectively.

"What we found was that either these policies were ineffective, not being applied properly, or they were only applied to certain groups but not others," Berlingieri said.

She added that everyday managerial practices, such as scheduling, are also being used to retaliate against those who speak up about harassment, where employers will cut shifts, or give employees unfavourable hours as a way to prevent them from reporting.

"There's a lack of reporting but also the fact that those who did report said that it made no difference or made the situation worse, points to the kind of work we need to do."

Berlingieri and MacQuarrie said that healthy workplace relationships are key to a balanced lifestyle and more robust prevention policies need to be in place to tackle that kind of harassment.

"It's not just about income, work has many meanings to different people, so we need to understand the impacts and costs so that we can better address it," said Berlingieri

"We all spend most of our waking hours at work and so having healthy workplace relationships impacts all of our lives," MacQuarrie added.