Workplace bullying needs prompt and concise action to be effective

It is very important to treat media reports of bullying with a great deal of scepticism.  An article in the Herald-Sun on 20 July 2010 is a good example of the collation of new and old information intended to generate alarm or outrage.

Werribee Secondary College has had several incidents of occupational violence and school violence.   All schools will have bullying incidents of student to student but these can be minimised and controlled with effort, commitment and vision.  Bullying between staff is different, although the controls are similar, and inhabits the  different legislative context of OHS.  WorkSafe Victoria has been involved with workplace bullying incidents in the education sector in the past.

The Herald-Sun builds on the myth that teachers have it easy because of the amount of leave that is scheduled. The current article entitled “Teacher seeks bullying payout” has a headline about workplace bullying but the article mixes up student bullying and workplace bullying as if they are the same issue but to different degrees and with different participants.

The Victorian Education Department has addressed the issue of workplace bullying to some extent.  The department has several sites devoted to bullying issues and occupational violence but much of it refers back to policies and reactionary responses.  It is often possible to apply risk management concepts to preventative strategies but this requires considerable commitment to active intervention and the establishment of an appropriate working environment.  Too often risk management policies are reiterations of the Australian or International Standard that establish a framework but do not assist very much in taking action in the presence of a hazard.  Regrettably the Education Department’s risk management procedure is an example of a less than effective attempt.

Safety management and risk interventions must be prompt and effective or they can become sidetracked or allow too many parties to become involved.  A staff member who is being bullied does not want to read an OHS procedure or a policy or a Standard, they are looking for help, they are looking for support, they are looking for someone to take the time to listen and, hopefully, advise.  A prompt response reduces the likelihood of a workers’ compensation claim for stress and also increases the chance of retaining skilled employees which helps a business develop its resources and maintain productivity.

The Education Department does provide staff support services, as do many companies, but in the case of workplace bullying, irreparable damage has often occurred by the time these resources are called upon.  The best measure for controlling workplace bullying is eliminating the likelihood of it occurring and this is done at the principal level, or the senior teacher level.  All staff must be allowed to, and feel empowered to, step in at the first indication of disrespect and abuse. 

It could be argued that just as “safety is everybody’s responsibility”, the “failure of safety should be everybody’s guilt”.  OHS actions and prosecutions focus on the “system of work” and people need to understand that they are part of that system of work and if the system of work proves to be unsafe then we have all contributed in some part to the failure. 

It is a reality that “safety is everybody’s responsibility” but it may still take a brave soul to accept that responsibility and to act on it, particularly when the workplace hazard involves the psychological welfare of others.

Kevin Jones

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