Workplace bullying awareness increases in Australia

A reader has advised that there has been an increase in calls to WorkCover NSW concerning workplace bullying, following the sentencing of four men earlier this week in Victoria.

WorkSafe Victoria has confirmed that its advisory service is receiving 30 calls a day on the issue where the regular rate was 10.  WorkSafe also says that the calls are taking longer than regular OHS calls.  This is to be expected when dealing with psychosocial hazards.  Also, if callers are not up-to-date on the OHS criteria for bullying, it may take additional time for inspectors on the advisory line to discuss the matter.

SafeWork SA says that their advisory line has seen a doubling in calls on the issue.  The authority issued a media release on 11 February 2010.  Western Australia tells SafetyAtWorkblog there has been a doubling of enquiries but from a very small base.

The question that should be asked by, particularly, WorkSafe Victoria is whether this level of interest is likely to be sustained.  Data from other Australian States indicate that knowledge of the sentencing of the bullies and the death of Brodie Panlock has spread beyond the borders but through what mechanism, to what industry sector and to what demographic would be hard to determine.

It should be noted that WorkSafe’s Acting Executive Director, Stan Krpan is scheduled to discuss workplace bullying on Sydney radio station 2UE on 14 February 2010 at 7.45pm.

News Limited’s Victorian newspaper, The Herald-Sun, ran with a front page exclusive on 12 February 2010 about WorkSafe Victoria’s new response to workplace bullying.  For almost a decade WorkSafe has been well aware of the bullying hazard and has had Inspectors specifically talking to workplaces over the issue and, generally, Inspectors consider all potential hazards when visiting workplaces, not only the specific matter for which they are called out.

The Herald-Sun article quotes the Victorian Premier, John Brumby on workplace bullying.

Premier John Brumby branded workplace bullies lowly cowards who would not be tolerated.

“Like any parent I want to know that we have safe and secure workplaces,” he said.  “Like most parents, I found the case of Brodie Panlock very distressing,…… Workplace bullying is a cowardly, low act.  Respect At Work is all about helping young and vulnerable Victorians tackle workplace bullying.”

The Premier’s media minders have clearly sniffed the wind.  SafetyAtWorkBlog questioned the Premier’s “Respect Agenda” earlier this week.

According to one media report, the Premier has launched a “Respect at Work” campaign.  The Minister for Workcover, Tim Holding issued a media release on 12 February 2010 stating:

“Bullying will not be tolerated but nor will silence. It is no excuse to see it happening and say and do nothing…  Respect at Work will help young and vulnerable Victorians tackle workplace bullying. The consequences of bullying can be devastating for individuals and can have a toxic impact on workplaces.

“We want people to speak out on bullying and to stand up for each other. This is something that everyone needs to take responsibility for – bullying must be stopped in its tracks.”

“WorkSafe will be entering workplaces around the State with a new focus on bullying. And we will deploy a dedicated team to focus on the most vulnerable and complex cases,” he said.

The Herald-Sun’s claim of 40,000 workplace “facing snap inspections” is shown to be false as this is the number of WorkSafe inspections undertaken each year on all sorts of workplace issues, although its claim of a dedicated team of inspectors seems accurate.

Minister Holding lists a number of potential actions for WorkSafe, all of which already occur:

  • “Assisting employers to train staff; [has been happening for at least 20 years already]
  • Helping employers to put in place bullying processes; [has been happening for over 10 years]
  • Issuing notices which force businesses to develop an anti-bullying strategy; [has been happening for over 10 years]
  • Investigating cases that can result in charges being laid in the most extreme instances.” [the bullying case stemming from Brodie Panlock shows this has been happening.  Other prosecutions by WorkSafe are listed HERE]

The disappointing element of the Respect At Work campaign is that its focus will be on workplace bullying.  Bullying is often a manifestation of other more systemic problems in workplaces.  What is really required is a systematic and coordinated approach to the broader issue of psycho-social hazards in workplaces.  At the moment the Victorian government is reacting to separate workplace risks of poor health, depression and stress whereas these issues have a considerable overlap with workplace bullying.

The fact that Victoria is in an election year is clearly illustrated by the Brumby and Holding’s announcements today  And, of course, should the Labor Party lose this election, which is an increasing risk, the Respect At Work initiative can be quickly cancelled by the incoming government, which would return us to where we are now.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

2 thoughts on “Workplace bullying awareness increases in Australia”

  1. Hi Kevin,

    I\’ve been interviewing WorkSafe\’s communication advisor, Michael Birt, along with two expert speakers ahead of their April 22 presentations on the subject to the Safety in Action Conference (see http://fireflymarketing.com.au/Media_Centre/AEC/Bullying_lessons_from_Brodie ).

    The consensus seems to be that:

    1. Bullying is often very difficult to identify;
    2. Employers need to clearly articulate what bullying is and, among other things, support a zero-tolerance policy with workplace training for all employees; and
    3. Act the instant they suspect bullying is occurring.

    Sounds simple but not so simple in practice. One person\’s definition of \”reasonable management\” is another person\’s definition of \”bullying\”. A tricky, tricky field even if you are equipped with intimate knowledge of the circumstances in each case. It would have to be another 10 times harder for a visiting inspector to deal with.

    1. Marian

      I was impressed by the ACT bullying guidelines released in the past week that stated upfront what is NOT workplace bullying. Too many people lump a lot of workplace issues under bullying when these issues may need additional or diffiernet intervention startegies.

      When the workplace bullying issue was first raised in Australia there was confusion over this topic and sexual harassment and discrimination and equal opportunity measures. Partly this was because mental health issues at work have traditionally resided in the area of human resources. Companies, and professions, needed to understand that the psychosocial issues discussed under OHS legislation and guidances are very similar to mental health. The hazards overlap but our mitigation and control strategies still do not.

      Not only is workplace bullying harder for OHS inspectors to deal with, it is the hazard that takes more of the inspector\’s time than any other hazard to manage. Each instance needs considerable people skills on behalf of the inspectors. There is increasing pressure on OHS regulators to raise the number of workpalce visits and inspections and a single bullying case can take considerable time.

      There are many interesting legal, social and workplace issues that stem from the prosecution of Brodie Panlock\’s bullies. I hope that the conference speakers address the full gamut of issues and not simply spruiking the latest copy of their anti-bullying book.

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