Richard Bilkszto: The man who finally wakes up employers to the dangers of workplace bullying?

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Image from The Niagara Independent

Richard Bilkszto was a principal with the Toronto District School Board. He died by suicide on July 13th. He was just 60 years old.

According to many of the news stories published since his death, Richard was a dedicated principal who had been recognized for the anti-racism work he did. Several describe an exchange Richard had with a professional development trainer during a diversity, equity and inclusion training session. One story suggested this exchange was an opportunity for teaching rather than admonishment. Some articles pointed to this exchange as the catalyst for a prolonged period of emotional challenge which eventually pushed Richard beyond what he could cope with.

“A day after the second training session, Bilkszto fell into a mental health crisis so bad that he had to spend more than a month away from work – for which he won a successful workers’ compensation claim for lost earnings. Shortly after his leave began, his association of education administrators asked the board to investigate the bullying incident, but the board refused. When Bilkszto returned to work, the TDSB further refused to reinstate him to the role he was in prior to taking leave; it also revoked a work contract he had been awarded for the upcoming year. Finally, the board disinvited him from attending a graduation ceremony.” National Post, NP Comment, July 21 2023

“Unfortunately, the stress and effects of these incidents continued to plague Richard. Last week he succumbed to this distress,” The Globe and Mail, July 24 2023

The story of Richard’s death, and issues related to it, have been covered by several news outlets. Various angles have been taken, and not surprisingly, there appears to be some relationship between tone and the publications’ political leanings. Some stories have suggested that Richard’s death has been “wrongly linked to anti-racist training”. As important as that part of this larger story may be, whether Richard Bilkszto’s suicide is linked to anti-racism training is not the interest of this Mad in Canada post. The focus of this story is workplace bullying and the corrosive effects it can have on the emotional wellbeing of those who are bullied.

Psychological Safety in the Workplace

In 2013, ‘Psychological health and safety in the workplace – Prevention, promotion, and guidance to staged implementation’ was published as a “National Standard for Canada”. It was commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

‘The Standard’ defines several key terms, including:

Harm n — an injury or damage to health.

Psychological safety — the absence of harm and/or threat of harm to mental well-being that a worker might experience. Note: Improving the psychological safety of a work setting involves taking precautions to avert injury or danger to worker psychological health.

Psychologically healthy and safe workplace — a workplace that promotes workers’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health including in negligent, reckless, or intentional ways.

This notion of ‘psychological safety’ is important; fundamental even. Despite this, it’s fair to suggest that the understanding many workplaces have of psychological safety is limited at best. Those who become emotionally distressed in response to workplace bullying might be asked if they are safe. The inference behind this question is, ‘do you feel suicidal?’. While this is an important consideration, does feeling a sense of personal safety in the workplace not extend well beyond whether the individual is suicidal? Is suicidal ideation the benchmark that must be met before a workplace is deemed psychologically unsafe?

Then there is the issue of what happens when an individual’s history of personal distress finds its way into the workplace. Given what we know about the prevalence of childhood trauma – rates vary from more than one-third to more than half of those under 18 – it’s reasonable to expect that the personal can become professional.

Allan Horwitz & Jerome Wakefield are two American scholars known for their critical perspectives on mental health. In their 2012 book, ‘All We Have To Fear: Psychiatry’s Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders”, they describe responses to traumatic events as “extreme distress and extended grappling with the significance and consequences of such events are expectable results of traumas as one engages in such meaning reconstruction”. Acknowledging the complex nature of our human condition and how we hold histories of trauma, Horowitz and Wakefield state, “we are clearly not designed to leave behind traumatic memories forever”.

There will be times when the capacity to cope, and to carry the weight of one’s history, may become compromised and get in the way of efforts to compartmentalize, to leave one’s personal stuff at home. Whether people like Richard Bilkszto had any prior history of ‘mental health challenges’ does not – should not – matter. And most certainly, a history of any amount of ‘mental health challenge’ or emotional distress, should never be used to explain away responsibility in cases of tragic outcome such as Richard’s.

Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is insidious and corrosive. Ignored or left unchecked, the effect on the victim can be devastating. The impact of psychological violence at work is about so much more than the ‘job’. Rightly or wrongly, the work we do becomes one of our primary identities. Our work defines us. For many, it becomes a large part of who we are. When our work and our work identity are threatened, the impact of this breach spreads into the other domains of our lives. Our work lives are about the income that affords our living standards, our friendships, a sense of belonging, a feeling of community, the daily routines and structures that help to keep us emotionally anchored, the overall sense of meaning and purpose we attach to our lives, and so much more. All of these are hit hard when a person is bullied at work.

The amount of emphasis many of us place on our work and our work identities, has the potential to be quite detrimental to our overall health and wellbeing. Despite the known risk, having an unhealthy relationship with work is a widely accepted way of being in many western nations. When we recognize this, it becomes easy to see how workplace bullying is about so much more than a job. Workplace bullying can be an attack on the very foundation of who we are – it can feel like an attack on the self. Richard Bilkszto’s story shows us that a person who feels their very self is under attack is at risk of having that bullying experience become a highly traumatic event, and a source of extraordinary emotional suffering. But experiences of workplace bullying do not have to become runaway trains that push a person beyond the limit of their capacity to cope. We should be able to use the knowledge and understanding we have to enable provision of the supports needed to stop those runaway trains. Yet somehow, we don’t.

From Suffering to Suicide

The space that exists between suffering caused by trauma & adversity and death by suicide is often large enough to enable what is needed: opportunity for the acknowledgement, validation, support, and reparation, that are essential to restoring wellbeing. Yet many of the various services and systems that are in place to provide support and help to those who are suffering fail too many people. Left to languish in their suffering, with inadequate or no support, while grappling with lack of acknowledgement and validation, and increasing isolation and despair, how are people supposed to cope? In Canada about 4500 people die by suicide each year. How is it that so much opportunity to help can be squandered …. that so many people can suffer so horribly, over and over and over again? The broader discourse on suicide and its known relationship to the many experiences that erode wellbeing is another national narrative that is lacking and worthy of critique.

In September of 2014, along with the works of six other photographers, a series of my images were shown at the Westland Gallery in London, Ontario. The show was called ‘Futurity and Photography’. My collection, ‘Juxtaposition’, was a critical commentary on suicide. I used the following statement to introduce my work:

Suicide exists just beyond that most precarious edge where the pain of living overwhelms and overtakes.

People do not commit suicide; they die by suicide. Crimes are committed. Historically, suicide was considered to be a criminal act in many countries, including Canada. It was not until 1972 that suicide and attempted suicide were removed from the Criminal Code of Canada. Those who make the choice to take their own lives ‘die by suicide’.

In this same regard, suicides are not successfully completed. There is no measure of success in a death that is the desperate result of being so deeply and overwhelmingly pained by the circumstances of one’s life.

In this series of 10 photographs – titled ‘Juxtaposition’ – I have woven together something of a visual dialogue. Each of these 10 images provides a different perspective on the suicide prevention barrier – The Luminous Veil – that was added to the Bloor Street Viaduct (formally, the Prince Edward Viaduct) in 2003. The bridge, itself, was opened in 1918.

To be in juxtaposition is to be situated side by side along with the presence of an apparent contrast. From many different perspectives, both literal and metaphorical, the Luminous Veil locates that which is illuminated and radiant in juxtaposition of that which is covered and shadowed.

Western-centric mental health care is replete with juxtapositions. Energies of hope that are illuminated & evolved do regular battle with counterforces of pessimism that are despairing & oppressive. For those hapless individuals who become embedded within this system, that I believe has lost its way, an engrained apathy can be one of the most tragic side effects.

Prolonged immersion in spaces of desolate misery can be heavily compounded by the multiple marginalizations (e.g. poverty, homelessness, lack of meaningful occupation, addictions, abuse) that too often plague those who experience seriously compromised emotional wellbeing (what biomedicine refers to as ‘mental illness’). Lives that have become dis-abled through exposure to accumulated dis-order, are too often viewed as disabled because of disorder, by a system that insists on pathologizing responses to trauma, adversity and, the human condition.

This series of photographic images is, indeed, a visual dialogue. Through passionate conviction, it is my intention to use this aesthetic form to inspire conversations aimed at poking holes in the dominant discourses that rule and determine in Western-based mental health care. This series of images calls for engaged and unbridled questioning of the reigning privileged assumptions that are the girders and beams of Western-based mental health care.

Does emotional distress caused by workplace bullying have to become so severe that a person has to contemplate suicide before it will be taken seriously; before it will be addressed properly …. and quickly? Can we not use the knowledge and understanding we have to do better …. much better?

We know so much about our human condition, about suffering, about distress. Yet so little of this knowledge is used; so much of it is ignored. This wilful blindness is killing people.

Ideal vs Real

Psychologically safe workplaces may be more of an ideal than a reality. Anecdotal evidence suggests that not only are many workplaces not psychologically safe, but too many are actually psychologically dangerous. A person does not have to be suicidal to feel or be unsafe. Whether suicidal or not, how could anyone who is being bullied at work feel safe in a workplace that is not?

“The vision for a psychologically healthy and safe workplace is one that actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health, including in negligent, reckless, or intentional ways, and promotes psychological well-being. ….. Psychological health and safety is embedded in the way people interact with one another on a daily basis and is part of the way working conditions and management practices are structured and the way decisions are made and communicated. …. Human needs when unmet or thwarted can become risk factors for psychological distress; when satisfied can lead to psychological and organizational health. These human needs include security and physiological safety, belonging, social justice, self-worth, self-esteem, self-efficacy, accomplishment, or autonomy. …..” Psychological health and safety in the workplace – Prevention, promotion, and guidance to staged implementation, 2013

How is it that this ‘Standard’ – really, what amounts to a collection of acts of basic human decency – has become so elusive in too many workplaces?

The workplace bullying experienced by Richard Bilkszto chipped away at him. It eroded his wellbeing, clearly beyond what he felt he could manage.

“We can’t know what was on Bilkszto’s mind in the past few weeks. We do know, however, that he was awarded workplace compensation for workplace harassment an bullying. We do know that he was made to feel humiliated before his colleagues. We do know that there is a pattern in education of disciplining staff before a proper investigation into the facts has been completed.” National Post, NP Comment, July 21 2023

The Toronto District School Board issue a statement on Richard’s death and Ontario’s Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce says his staff will review allegations made by Richard.

I didn’t know Richard Bilkszto, but I’m pretty sure he did not want to die. Can his death be a long-needed call to action? Can Richard Bilkszto be the standard-bearer for the dangers of workplace bullying and psychologically unsafe workplaces?