By Robert Frank
Frema Engel has been talking about workplace violence for more than four decades—long before the Internet made bullying a household word.
Engel, who trained as a social worker, began her pioneering work in the early 1970s, after she noticed that hospital staff were often being victimized by unruly patients.
Then, in the 1980s, Engel shifted to the Canada’s financial sector, where she helped improve the way that banks helped staff who were victims of bank robberies. Since 1986, she followed her passion to instill respectfulness, making the workplace, school and community environments healthier places.
After publishing several guides to teach medical and mental health professionals how to deal with violence in the workplace, Engel decided to write for a wider audience.
She first penned a workplace issues column in The Suburban for several years. Then, she authored the book Taming the Beast: Getting Violence Out of the Workplace. Her book, which made it easy for anyone to understand what workplace violence is all about, is now in its second edition.
Thanks to Engel’s groundbreaking work, the civility movement that she helped to inspire has spread throughout Canada.
“I do a lot of conflict resolution work now, where teams are constantly fighting and don’t get along,” she said. “When people book off sick, quit or file grievances, those could be indicators of an unhealthy environment. I go in, find out what’s going on and suggest an intervention that will heal the situation.”
The work spans corporations, non-profits, heath-care institutions and government departments. Often, the bullies can be very intelligent, highly accomplished individuals in leadership positions.
“It cuts across all professional lines,” Engel explained. “It can happen anywhere in any time, regardless of the level of professionalism and education.”
“It’s not easy for supervisors to take on these issues,” she acknowledged. “Most are ill-equipped and tend to shy away, until a crisis makes it impossible to ignore.”
Engel responded to one such crisis in April 1992, after Concordia University asked for advice on how to deal with a troublesome academic.
In a letter, she urged Concordia to take action because the professor could “become violent and either harm a member or members of the university or himself.”
Her warning went unheeded and, four months later, Valery Fabrikant went on a murderous rampage, killing four other professors and wounding a secretary.
Today, Engel still contributes her expertise as a consultant at www.fremaengel.com. She has developed a particular niche working with teams of physicians who have often identified what she describes as toxic work environments.
She also still maintains a small clinical practice, as a therapist for individuals who have been victimized by bullying, harassment or trauma.
Engel also spent several years developing peer support programs to help journalists who have experienced traumatic stress while reporting the news. In addition, whenever there is a prominent spree killing, her phone still rings off the hook with calls from reporters seeking her expert commentary.
In 1999, the Montreal Council of Women declared her Woman of the Year and, in 2012, she received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in recognition of her accomplishments.
She told The Suburban that her greatest satisfaction, though, is the tangible difference that she has made in individual lives.
She added that the best lesson that we can convey to our children about behaviour is how we ourselves behave.
“Teaching by example is best,” she concluded. “We have to give them a model that we want them to emulate.”