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  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:
- 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.