Why all the arguing over a workplace bullying definition? 5

There have been many calls in Australia for a national definition of workplace bullying.  Apparently the definition below that has applied in OHS legislation for over ten years in Victoria is insufficient:

“Repeated unreasonable behaviour directed toward a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.”

The definition above was the one used in the first draft Code of Practice on Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying produced by Safe Work Australia in September 2011.

The definition was questioned by Moira Rayner, as a representative of the Law Institute of Victoria, at recent public hearings into workplace bullying.  Researchers said that a lack of a national definition is a major reason that research in workplace bullying has been so thin.

A quick survey of workplace bullying definitions in Australia is listed below:

“Unreasonable and inappropriate workplace behaviour includes bullying, which comprises behaviour which More…

“Loose” workplace bullying statistics published 5

Workplace bullying policy matters are at their peak in Australia this week as public hearings occur at the House Standing Committee on Education and Employment inquiry into workplace bullying. Several experts on the prevention of workplace bullying will be appearing at these hearings but the topicality also allows others to release or promote data on workplace bullying.

Safety Consultants Australia (SCA) released a “blueprint” on Safety Hazard: Workplace Bullying in March 2012 that has been recirculated this week. The blueprint is a useful example of the care that needs to be taken when summarising data on workplace bullying.

SCA states, IN VERY BIG LETTERS, that the Productivity Commission estimated that

“Workplace Bullying costs Australian employers between $6 – $36 billion every year.”

SCA has released a flyer with the same information in EVEN BIGGER LETTERS however the Productivity Commission’s report Performance Benchmarking of Australian Business Regulation: Occupational Health & Safety (2010)  states on page 279:

“Estimates of the prevalence and cost of psychosocial hazards vary considerably. For example, using international studies as a guide, estimates of the annual cost of workplace bullying to employers and the economy in Australia ranged from $6 billion to $36 billion (in 2000).” More…

Public hearings into Workplace Bullying to commence in Australia 8

Next week Australia holds public hearings into the issue of workplace bullying. Currently the House Standing Committee on Education and Employment has not yet made any submissions publicly available which handicaps the value of the public hearings for observers but the Trade Unions have released their submissions.  Generally, the suggestions for control measures are progressive but the submissions also indicate the extent of the challenge in “controlling” workplace bullying and some of the challenges facing this inquiry.

The ACTU claims that workplace bullying was given national prominence following a survey of union members in 2000 but that survey is not representative of the broader Australian community and should be treated with caution.  The ACTU submission seeks support for its survey results from more authoritative sources such as Safe Work Australia and the Productivity Commission.  But neither of these sources indicates workplace bullying to be as big an issue as the ACTU claims.

Safe Work Australia’s figures, quoted by the ACTU , say that in

“In 2007/08, 26% of accepted workers compensation claims for mental stress in Australia resulted in 26 or more weeks off work.”

The significance in this quote is that bullying is not mentioned and if one accepts that bullying is a subset of mental stress and psychosocial hazards, bullying should be only a fraction of the 26% figure.  It is also the case that it is common for victims of bullying to eliminate the hazard through resignation rather than lodge workers’ compensation claims.  So one metric may indicate a low bullying rate but another indicates a “hidden” rate.  Accurate measurement, the accumulation of evidence, is a major problem in any study of workplace bullying and is a major challenge for this Parliamentary Inquiry. More…

Workplace bullying in the police force illustrates the challenges of change management 2

There are two newspaper reports in Australia on 21 June 2012 about the Victorian Police Force that illustrate a fractious safety culture and a major organisational and ideological impediment to reducing workplace bullying.

The Australian article ” OPI concedes failure against force’s culture” (only available to subscribers) states that:

‘The Office of Police Integrity has conceded it and other corruption fighting measures have failed to root out the entrenched culture of reprisals and mateship in pockets of the Victoria Police that seriously harms the force….”

“The OPI says current law fails to deal with why whistleblowers are targeted. ‘‘The legislated protections against retaliation do not address the root cause of reprisal — a workplace culture of misguided loyalty,’’ it argues.  “The protections are individualistic and short-term, tending to ‘look after’ victims and potential victims of reprisal rather than address why reprisal occurs.’’

“Despite the subsequent formation of the OPI and the beefing up of the Ombudsman’s powers, police still struggled to break free of the shackles of loyalty and the so-called brotherhood.’

The Age article, “A fifth of police bullied at work“, reports on a government survey circulated to 14,000 people.

‘The figures, provided to The Age, mean about 1250 of the 4200 police staff who completed the survey have seen bullying behaviour, while nearly 900 say they have been bullied.’ More…

Brodie’s Law not being applied. Perhaps a broader context is needed. 8

Workplace bullying is a hazard that must be recognized, addressed and punished, but above all prevented. “Brodie’s Law” was always going to be a part of this challenge but never the solution.

Today’s Age newspaper bemoans the fact that “Brodie’s Law” has not been applied since its introduction 12 months ago.  This is not surprising and the article provides some clues to why.

The application of this law seems now to be mainly intended for the Victorian Police force and, as with any police force, there are a great many items on their agenda of which workplace bullying is only one.

Policing and harm prevention

It can also be asked why the Victorian Police force is policing a workplace issue?  Workplace safety is principally the responsibility of the employer or, in the new language, person conducting a business or undertaking.  The bullies and employer involved in the bullying of Brodie Panlock were prosecuted under occupational health and safety law, not the Crimes Act. More…

Workplace bullying hits the national agenda in Australia 4

On Saturday morning, May 26 2012, the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and her Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten, announced an inquiry into workplace bullying to be undertaken by the House Standing Committee on Education and Employment and to report to Parliament in November 2012.

This announcement seems to be another that is buried or overtaken by current political events.   The Australian Broadcasting Corporation mentioned workplace bullying as a “silent epidemic”.  There is a strong risk that the politicians are overstating the workplace bullying case.  WorkSafe Victoria receives thousands of enquiries about workplace bullying but only a portion of them fit the workplace bullying definition and only a handful proceed to a prosecution.  The government needs to be careful that it is not operating to a perception of workplace bullying instead of the reality, even though the community outrage is genuinely felt.

The Age newspaper and AAP, basically printed an edited media release but the most significant statements have not been printed.  These are the comments by the Prime Minister, Minister Shorten and the parents of Brodie Panlock, Damian and Rae.  Below is a selection or statements from the doorstop transcript:

PM : “I’ve have had the opportunity to have a conversation with Damian and with Rae about their family experience and they will talk about that family experience themselves, but it led to the loss of their daughter Brodie. And they fought hard here in Victoria for Brodie’s law, to have a law that deals with serious bullying at work. More…

Disagreement on workplace bullying strategy increases in Australia 5

According to The Australian newspaper on 5 January 2012 the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is extremely critical of Safe Work Australia’s draft Code of Practice on Workplace Bullying. The ACTU has said that the draft code has a “fundamental flaw”

“… the failure to address workplace bullying in the same framework as any other workplace hazard/risk.”

This is a significant challenge but without access to the ACTU submission on the draft code it is difficult to determine the exact context of this fundamental flaw.

Of more concern is the apparent move by the ACTU, according to The Australian, to have single instances of inappropriate behavior covered by the workplace bullying code. This is contrary to the bullying concept that only repeated instances of abuse should be considered bullying.

Regardless of this challenge to established definitions, it is very hard to see how such a situation could be enforced by either OHS representatives or OHS regulators. The regulators have struggled for years with the existing definition and could have no effective role in workplaces if the unions’ wishes were successful. More…

Workplace Bullying is a significant challenge even if the reality is smaller than expected 4

An article in the Weekend Australian newspaper and magazine (not available fully online) provides some statistics that raise serious questions about the level of bullying in workplaces in Australia, with particular focus on Victoria.  Of the 2,080 complaints lodged with WorkSafe Victoria in 2010-11

“only eight were deemed serious enough to warrant possible prosecution.”

Yet the OHS regulator received 7,050 inquiries about bullying.  There is clearly a problem in Victorian workplaces but it is not always bullying, as defined under OHS law.  Something else is happening and it has been happening for some time.

As reported previously in SafetyAtWorkBlog, the issue of workplace relationships is broader than can be handled by one regulator under one law.  There are human rights issues, mental health issues, harassment  and potential suicides – a range of social issues that should have taken the prevention of “workplace bullying” out of the workplace sometime ago.

The newspaper article, by Richard Guilliatt, draws on several significant cases of proven workplace bullying beyond the more familiar case of Brodie Panlock.  Christine Hodder’s suicide in 2005 following bullying in the New South Wales Ambulance Service generated a review of the organisation that found systemic bullying.  Sixteen year old Alex Meikle committed suicide in 2008 after many workplace “pranks” that included being set on fire. More…

Workplace bullying statistics remain muddy 5

A recent article on workplace bullying by the CEO of Diversity Council Australia, Nareen Young, is a good introduction to the issue but, as with many other articles on the issue, the content requires careful consideration.

One statistical resource used on workplace bullying articles is the very important and influential March 2010 Productivity Commission (PC) report – Performance Benchmarking of Australian Business Regulation: Occupational Health & Safety.  Predominantly, this report lumps together “harassment”, “occupational violence”, and “fatigue” with “workplace bullying” under the term “psychosocial hazards”.  This means it is impossible to extrapolate data from any specific workplace issue in this category, however the PC report does devote some sections of Chapter 11 specifically to bullying, but even then the statistics are tricky.

Young’s article states that

“Estimates of its [bullying’s] prevalence in the workplace vary, but one study outlined in the Productivity More…

WorkSafe Victoria provides insight into bullying investigations 10

It has been known for some time that OHS regulators struggle with handling reports of workplace bullying.  Investigation of these hazards requires new inspectorate skills and take considerable time.  Investigations of bullying involve people and this is always more involved than inspecting a missing machine guard or assessing the operation of a forklift.  However, in an article in The Sunday Age on 24 July 2011 WorkSafe Victoria provides some surprising statistics that show a new perspective on workplace bullying and a contrast to recent statistics from Comcare.

The most significant statistic is that, of the 6000 reports of workplace bullying within the last 12 months, only 600 warrant further investigation and, of those, around 60 generate a physical inspection of the workplace.  These statistics may indicate a range of issues:

  • OHS regulators require greater number of inspectors.
  • Workplace bullying is being critically misunderstood by the community.
  • Workers are confused about where to report their treatment and choose WorkSafe as the agency with the highest profile for workplace issues.
  • Other workplace-related agencies and authorities, such as Fair Work Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission, need to raise their profiles on this issue.
What is missing from the WorkSafe statistics above is the next level of intervention.  What action is being taken by the inspector?  Will prosecutions occur?  Are improvement notices applied?  There may be just as wide a gap between the 60 inspections and an appearance in court.

For readers’ interest searching for “bullying” on the Fair Work Australia site reveals no results however the Australian Human Rights Commission site results in several references – a clarification of violence, harassment and bullying (with links for further information) and a workplace bullying factsheet. More…