Don’t Ignore Bullying in the Workplace


workplace bullying


From 1 January 2014, a worker, for example an employee, contractor, apprentice or volunteer who reasonably believes they have been bullied at work may apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop the workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying can have a significant negative impact on individuals and the workplace. Like all hazards in the workplace it needs to be managed.  Everyone at work has a responsibility for work health and safety – physical and psychological – and to ensure that workplace bullying does not occur.

From 1 January 2014, a worker, for example an employee, contractor, apprentice or volunteer who reasonably believes they have been bullied at work may apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop the workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying includes but is not limited to:

  • abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments
  • unjustified criticism or complaints
  • deliberately excluding someone from workplace activities
  • withholding information that is vital for effective work performance
  • setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines
  • setting tasks that are unreasonably below or beyond a person’s skill level
  • denying access to information, supervision, consultation or resources to the detriment of the worker
  • spreading misinformation or malicious rumours
  • changing work arrangements such as rosters and leave to deliberately inconvenience a particular worker or workers.

Workplace bullying can be harmful to the person experiencing it and to those who witness it. The effects will vary depending on individual characteristics as well as the specific situation and may include one or more of the following:

  • distress, anxiety, panic attacks or sleep disturbance
  • physical illness for example muscular tension, headaches and digestive problems
  • reduced work performance
  • loss of self-esteem and feelings of isolation
  • deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family and friends
  • depression
  • thoughts of suicide.

Workplace bullying can also have a negative impact on the work environment, damage the reputation of a business and can lead to:

  • high staff turnover and associated recruitment and training costs
  • low morale and motivation
  • increased absenteeism
  • lost productivity
  • disruption to work when complex complaints are being investigated
  • costly workers’ compensation claims or legal action

The usual means of redress for employees suffering workplace bullying is workers’ compensation.  But such a claim can only be made after substantial psychiatric or physical damage is done.  It then becomes a litigious exercise to determine whether or not this was a valid claim in the first place.  Even a successful compensation claim does not force the aggressor to change their behavior, nor does it force their employer to address the behavior.  In some cases employees who experience bullying are so damaged they are unable to return to the workforce at all and their future is filled with years of compensation or social security payments.

Bullying behavior exists in a culture of ignorance and can thrive for years in workplaces that are not exposed to external scrutiny.  So much of our day to day life is spent in the workplace that an environment where bullying is accepted or ignored will impact on the level of damage to the health and safety of the workers.

So how do we address the problem of bullying?  Early identification of unreasonable behavior and situations likely to increase the risk of workplace bullying and a good place to start is with Consultation.

Consultation involves sharing information, giving workers a reasonable opportunity to express their views and taking those views into account before making decisions on health and safety matters.

Consultation enables workers to have input in developing policies and procedures for workplace bullying that are best suited to the needs of the business or undertaking. Effective consultation can also help raise awareness of and identify the potential for workplace bullying.  The Safe Work Australia’s Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying suggests the following processes that may help identify workplace bullying or the potential for it to occur:

  • regular consultation with workers and where they exist health and safety representatives and health and safety committees, including discussions aimed at finding out if bullying is occurring or if there are factors likely to increase the risk of workplace bullying—for some businesses conducting an anonymous survey may be useful)
  • seeking feedback when workers leave the business, for example holding exit interviews
  • seeking feedback from managers, supervisors or other internal and external parties
  • monitoring incident reports, workers compensation claims, patterns of absenteeism, sick leave, staff turnover and records of grievances to establish regular patterns or sudden unexplained changes
  • recognising changes in workplace relationships between workers, customers and managers.

The risk of workplace bullying can be eliminated or minimised by creating a positive work environment where everyone treats each other with respect. A combination of control measures aimed at both the organisational level and at individual behaviours should be considered.

Clear standards of behavior can be set out in a workplace policy that outlines what is and is not appropriate behaviour and what action will be taken to deal with unacceptable behaviour. It can apply to all behaviours that occur in connection with work, even if they occur outside normal working hours. The advantage of this approach is that unreasonable behaviours can be addressed before they escalate into workplace bullying.

The policy should also outline a clear procedure to be followed when reporting bullying in the workplace.  To be effective, the policy should be easily accessible and consistently applied. It should be communicated and promoted through notice boards, the intranet, team meetings and by managers discussing the policy with their staff

Implementing a policy in a small business may simply involve the business owner advising workers and reminding them when necessary that bullying behaviour is not tolerated in the workplace, what to do if it does occur and what action will be taken.

Good management practices and effective communication can help create a workplace environment that discourages bullying.



About the Author

Safety Concepts is an online resource providing up to date insights and covering issues in the field of Workplace Safety.

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