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Dr. Elizabeth Quinlan (PhD) is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology. (Photo: David Stobbe)

USask researcher hosts theatre workshops to explore workplace harassment in health care

Theatre is a powerful tool because it generates a collective experience, says sociologist Dr. Elizabeth Quinlan (PhD)

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By Shannon Boklaschuk

University of Saskatchewan (USask) sociologist Dr. Elizabeth Quinlan (PhD) believes the arts can help create social change.

From Nov. 30 – Dec. 6, she will host Healthcare: CODE BLUE, a series of interactive theatre workshops facilitated by Toronto’s Mixed Company Theatre. The online workshops will explore the prevention and resolution of workplace harassment faced by Saskatchewan’s front-line health-care employees.

“Theatre, like so many of the art forms, has the capacity to reach people on multiple levels—not just our intellectual, rational selves, but also on the emotional plane,” said Quinlan, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology in USask’s College of Arts and Science.

Quinlan said theatre is a powerful tool because it generates a collective experience. During each 90-minute presentation of Healthcare: CODE BLUE, professional actors will present dramatized scenes based on workplace harassment faced by front-line health-care workers in Saskatchewan. The scenes were inspired by a series of workshops held earlier this year with a group of front-line health-care workers who are members of CUPE 5430 and SEIU-West, Quinlan’s partners in the research study. Funding for the Workplace Harassment Research Project was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

“This form of theatre in the project has been endorsed by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as a tool for social change and it’s being used in over 70 countries to address a whole range of topics,” said Quinlan. “I’m looking at workplace harassment, but we can think of any number of social problems that need to be addressed—and this form of theatre is being used widely to address issues such as homelessness, sexual violence and environmental degradation.”

The upcoming workshops will focus on employee-to-employee workplace harassment, rather than on the harassment workers may experience during patient interactions. Quinlan is particularly interested in connecting with front-line health-care workers employed in specific roles, such as home care aides, continuing care assistants and licensed practical nurses. However, all front-line health-care workers, or their representatives, from CUPE 5430 or SEIU-West are invited to register for the free workshops.

“I think the pandemic has shown us how crucial our front-line health-care workers are to everyone’s health and wellbeing, and they really have risen to the challenge,” Quinlan said. “They’ve worked extra shifts, often without adequate safety protection, kept deathly sick patients alive—and, in many cases, it’s been at the expense of their own health and wellbeing. I think we owe it to them to attend to their health and wellbeing.”

Healthcare: CODE BLUE was written by playwright Luciano Iogna and is directed by Simon Malbogat, who co-founded Mixed Company Theatre in 1983. Following each performance, Malbogat will lead a discussion and then invite the participating health-care workers to enter the dramatized situations themselves. This will provide the participants with an opportunity to intervene in the action and to explore alternative actions and reactions.

About two to four months after the interactive presentations conclude, Quinlan will interview the participants to ask them about the impact of the workshops. She said previous participants have indicated that the experiences they gained in the theatre workshops and forums enabled them to “step in and short circuit” emerging conflicts in their workplaces.

“What we’ve found in the past is that participants come away with a sense that it’s not just about the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys,’ ” Quinlan said. “Harassment is a set of behaviours that are built around relations of power, and we’re coming together to investigate what prevents well-intentioned people from changing the very conditions that give rise to the harassment.”

For more information about the Workplace Harassment Research Project, visit the project website or email WH.researchproject@usask.ca.


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