Workplace bullying — a primer


Workplace bullying — a primer

What is bullying? What are the effects? How do we know it is bullying behaviour? WHS expert Gaby Grammeno explains.


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Bullying at the workplace is repeated, unreasonable behaviour by a person or group of people towards one or more workers, creating a risk to their health and safety. This definition is set out in the Fair Work Act 2009 (s789FD), and it has been adopted in national guidance material produced by Safe Work Australia and other authorities.

‘Repeated’ and ‘unreasonable’ are two essential elements of behaviour considered to be bullying. An isolated instance of unpleasant or unwelcome behaviour from one staff member to another is not bullying, and neither is ‘reasonable management action’, for example, a negative performance appraisal, critical feedback or re-allocation of duties, as long as it’s carried out in a reasonable manner. However, any of these types of interactions could amount to bullying if they are repeated and unreasonable.

What are the effects?

People who are bullied or harassed can suffer real harm – physical as well as psychological – and there can be harmful consequences for the business as well, as productivity and staff morale may well be affected. 

Effects on the individual can range from emotional distress, alienation from their colleagues, depression and anxiety to nightmares, substance abuse and in extreme cases, suicide. It is not difficult to find Australian cases of suicide following workplace bullying – for example, recent media reports concern a 30-year-old Victorian worker at a major supermarket chain who took his own life after being worn down by relentless workplace bullying, according to statements by his co-workers. Brodie's Law in Victoria, which introduced a criminal bullying charge punishable by imprisonment, is named after Brodie Panlock, whose suicide followed persistent bullying at the cafe where she worked.

Data from the Australian Institute of Suicide Research and Prevention indicate that construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than from a workplace accident. One construction worker commits suicide every two days, according to reports, and those aged 15-24 are twice as likely to kill themselves as other young men. 

Suicide is of course just the tip of the iceberg of stress, personal anguish and mental health damage generated by workplace bullying. 

In addition to its adverse effect on an individual’s safety, health and wellbeing – and their ability to do their job – bullying can have a very significant negative impact on productivity, staff turnover, absenteeism and morale, resulting in and financial losses for the organisation.

On average, a workers’ compensation claim for mental stress results in more than 16 weeks off work, which can put an extra strain on the business, with the need for overtime, recruitment and training of replacement staff, and a greater administrative burden for management. Such compensation claims also have the highest median payment, more than double the median payment for other types of claims. This can result in higher workers’ compensation premiums for the organisation.

What should we do about it?

Employers must try to prevent or manage bulling and harassment as far as is reasonably practicable, to fulfil their duty of care and comply with requirements under health and safety laws.

Workplace bullying is best dealt with by employing a number of strategies in combination to prevent it from occurring and to respond quickly and effectively if it does occur.  

Recognising that there’s a problem is not always straightforward. If individual staff members feel they are being bullied by management, for example, they may hesitate to say anything about it due to fear of repercussions. A wide range of other circumstances can also inhibit reporting, so recommended strategies for identifying actual or potential bullying could include anonymous surveys, observations of how people interact with each other, and informal conversations. These should be considered in the light of known risk factors such as stressful workloads, autocratic leadership style and poor workplace culture.

To foster productive and respectful workplace relationships It is also advisable to make the expected standards of behaviour clear to personnel, for example, by way of written policy statements, induction training, good management practices, effective communication and encouragement to report bullying. The information provided to workers should include mention of the consequences of bullying and other types of unacceptable behaviour.

Responding to bullying

Allegations of bullying should be treated seriously, confidentially and consistently. The keys to an effective response are to intervene early, establish procedures to investigate and stop any bullying, and provide support to resolve the issue. Initial responses may involve temporarily reassigning tasks, separating the parties involved or granting leave. 

It is important to gain a clear understanding of the behaviours felt to be unreasonable, and if possible, to address the problem using a conciliatory approach to help individuals reach an outcome that will bring about an end to the unreasonable behaviour. More difficult cases may involve a workplace investigation, which must comply with standards of procedural fairness.

Further reading

Detailed guidance is available in Safe Work Australia’s Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying.
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