Unprecedented interest in workplace bullying

On 25 March 2010, at the first of ten workplace bullying information seminars, WorkSafe Victoria, claimed to have a world-class approach to combating workplace bullying.  The Europeans may dispute the claim but there is no doubt that WorkSafe is on the right path in responding to the unprecedented community interest in the issue.

In a packed hall in the City of Melbourne, Trevor Martin, WorkSafe’s Strategic Programs Director, acknowledged the considerable media interest in the hazard over the last few years, and particularly since the prosecution of four men in associated with bullying at Cafe Vamp.  Martin said that WorkSafe’s advisory help line has been receiving more that 40 calls per day on bullying and harassment issues and that

“In February [2010] 560 calls were received …… 10%, 56 cases made it through to the dedicated unit for further work to be done.  That is an astonishing number of calls to WorkSafe on a single issue.”

In mid-February, workplace bullying was the third most common reason for calling the advisory line.  Martin expected it to be at least the second top issue at the end of February’s statistics.

According to Martin, around 15% of Victorian workers report being bullied.  25% had witnessed bullying in a workplace.

Oonagh Barron, Senior Project Officer, spoke for the bulk of the presentation.  Barron has been working on and off with this issue in WorkSafe and her understanding of the steps that have led to the latest workplace bullying advice was authoritative.

Since late 2009, WorkSafe has been issuing a guidance document entitled “Preventing and responding to bullying at work”.  This is a substantially different publication to the 2001 original where the guide was split  between the issues of occupational violence and workplace bullying.  The divergence is understandable because although there are similar psychological aftermaths the control processes are dramatically different.  Martin said that the psychological impact of workplace bullying can far outweigh the impact of physical violence, on the victim and witnesses.

OHS professionals in New South Wales also attended seminars on workplace bullying in March.  WorkCover NSW also promoted the use of recent guidance on the matter.


Curiously, WorkSafe discussed leadership and managerial types in the context of bullying.  This is a new inclusion in WorkSafe’s lexicon although they have talked at other times of leadership generally and workplace culture.  Cleverly, WorkSafe has avoided confusing the control and prevention of bullying by entering the world of psychobabble that often distracts businesses on matters of leadership.

WorkSafe acknowledged that the extremes of management style have been shown to contribute to workplace bullying but more wisely than some “leadership spruikers” who claim leadership can save the world by itself, WorkSafe discussed the matter in the broader safety context.   WorkSafe listed the two extremes.

“Autocratic leadership style:

Task emphasis, lack of involvement of employees with decision-making; strict; directive; lacks trust; poor delegation; tight control; lack of flexibility; poor interpersonal skills.

Laissez-faire leadership style;

Lack of direction; lack of supervision; absence of role clarity; responsibilities inappropriately and informally delegated to subordinates; little or no guidance provided to subordinates.”

With over ten years of investigating workplace bullying, WorkSafe said they can almost sense the hazard when they first arrive on site.  This perception is well-understood by OHS consultants who deal with a variety of workplace and industry types.

Traditional OHS actions

But WorkSafe emphasised that many of the established, traditional OHS control issues still effective on the prevention of bullying:

  • Consultation
  • Communication
  • Clear policies
  • Grievance procedures

It is the absence of these basic OHS elements that indicates a dysfunctional workplace to the OHS professional.

New trend-setting approaches to safety management need to be considered but they work best in workplaces that have already established the basics of a safe workplace.  This is applicable to psychosocial hazards of bullying, stress, depression and others.

WorkSafe did very well by reminded the audience of the role that the  fundamentals of OHS management can play in the management of “new” hazards.


WorkSafe has another nine presentations on workplace bullying scheduled for Victoria over the coming weeks.  Should the same package of speakers and panelists participate, they will become more confident but hopefully not “slick”.

They have the advantage of almost ten years of experience investigating workplace bullying through a regulatory context.  They acknowledged that each prosecution on bullying has provided lessons for the next.  The audience is provided with a very recent hard copy guidance on workplace bullying that has not just been cobbled together as a response to recent media attention.  This preparedness showed in their confidence and the lack of reliance on recent prosecutions.

WorkSafe was anticipating questions about workers’ compensation for workplace bullying issues but none eventuated.  This was probably due to the expectation of the audience that the focus of the seminar was on prevention.  It would be interesting to see if compensation issues are raised in future seminars.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

9 thoughts on “Unprecedented interest in workplace bullying”

  1. Hello, as part of my Graduate Certificate in Health Promotion i\’m doing some study on interventions to tackle workplace stress in the Community Services sector. Any pointers, or assistance you can provide me with?



  2. Hi there,
    I was working for a well-known hospital in Victoria but now i have left my work place. I resigned due to being bullying by some Senior Managers, can i still file the workplace bullying lodgement to the authority ?
    If yes, where can i find the website or where to lodge in the complaint ?
    Desmond Cheah

  3. This is an interesting topic, one I am not familiar with. I\’m well aware of bullying issues in schools and many states are now taking legislative action to address the problems. But I had no idea it is a significant problem in the workplace. Can anyone quantify the magnitude of the problem? Are there legal remedies available to deal with them? If not, are their initiatives underway to implement some?

  4. I agree, that everyone needs to understand the seriousness of bullying, which in some workplaces is part of the culture. The question is how will this message be deliver to stop this behaviour sooner rather than later, which results in loss of lives and leaves workers with permanent injuries affecting their well being and careers.

    Many cases of bullying go unreported because the workers feel unsupported by management or the workplace system; so they either leave their current job for another; take sick or unpaid leave as they suffer emotional and psychological injury and are not able to deal with confrontation or factual investigations at the time.

    Like WorkSafe -Victoria, WorkCover NSW is running workshops on preventing and responding to bullying in the workplace for small business, which provides employers with some guidelines. However, is this enough?

    1. Faith.

      I suspect that the most common control measure for workplace bullying is for the victim to leave the job. In OHS terms, the individual has eliminated the risk (but not the damage. That\’s takes a far while) which is a reasonable action to take. This does not eliminate bullying at the source but an individual also has an OHS legal obligation to not put\’s oneself at risk of injury or harm.

      I know that in the case of Cafe Vamp that casual employees did advise Brodie Panlock to take this action but she was reluctant as she was in a romantically relationship with one of her colleagues (one that was found guilty of workplace bullying).

      On of the perspectives I have been trying to promote to some of the psychologists who speak and advise on bullying is that there is a legislative requirement in OHS legislation not to bully. But very few of the psychologists are OHS professionals as well and therefore they promote the non-legislative control measures. It seems that only the OHS regulators are promoting the OHS options. WorkSafe statistics show a high concern on the hazard but I wonder how high the calls to the advisory services would be if the psychologists also encouraged workers to report the incidents to the OHS regulators, rather than empowering them through therapy.

      I would like to see more workplace bullies dealt with through OHS enforcement. I believe that this will change the culture of many bullying workplaces. I would prefer the psychological services to focus on the repair of the individuals rather than trying to sell cultural change to the corporate levels. The executives are getting bombarded by leadership and cultural change and wellness sales people but if the efforts of those sales people were focussed on treatment perhaps the OHS anti-bullying messages of the OHS regulators would gain more traction.

  5. The biggest issue on regard to workplace bullying is everyone turns a blind eye in the hope that the bully or bullies won\’t turn on them and they also hope that the victim keeps quiet so nothing has to be done.

    However until everyone understands the workplace bullying is a crime against the entire workplace not just the targetted victims, until the employer understands that workplace bullying costs not just in increased sick days taken or valuable employees leaving, but it cost in the cash register because the staff simply are not able to work at their maximum.
    Then and only then will anything be seriously done to address this situation.

    The saddest workplace bully victim I have worked with was a lady who was employed for less than 8 weeks, but the workplace did not want her there.
    My first meeting with her she was not able to lift her head to look at me, it took months of slowly rebuilding this person belief in herself. She has never been able to return to the workforce, she lost her career of 30+ years, she lost her dignity and worse she lost her self dignity.
    Even now it is still difficult for her to accept that the very business that head hunted her allowed her to become a victim of open abuse.

    Whilst industry professionals sit and talk, victims are walking out of their jobs, they are lodging WorkCover claims and others are taking theior own lives.

    I may be wrong, but it is my belief that workplace bully\’s started their \”career\” in kindergarten where people gave into them for the sake of peace and quiet, then as they progressed through the schooling years they became schoolyard bullies, who then went on to being workplace bullies. These people surround themselves with other who want to protection of some one in a assumed position of power and who will tell the bully just how good they are.

  6. So where are the unions in all of this. Falling membership and lack of any real presence on the shop floor, lift your game guys there has never been a better opportunity to build your membership base and look after the workers of Australia.

    But then the cynical side cuts in. Where is the union hierarchy focus? possibly the soft seats of parliament?

    1. Tony

      The unions were certainly in attendance at the seminar and asked the majority of the questions. Some of the processes for handling workplace bullying cases put forwarded by the Financial Sector Union rep were very good. The FSU was certainly well ahead of most businesses on the bullying issue.

      The challenge is to get the workplace bullying information to small businesses which, as the Cafe Vamp prosecution showed, have few OHS resources and often little interest in OHS.

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