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

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.

Perception vs Reality

The Weekend Australian reports on a complex legal case involving Charmaine Pickett (not her real name) where the judgement in the bullying case brought by Pickett against her (Commonwealth) employer rejected

“…every one of Pickett’s harassment and discrimination claims, it concluded that she “substantially created” the toxic atmosphere in her office…”

The judge concluded

“…that she had made exaggerated or unfounded allegations against co-workers, deliberately escalated conflict at work and used the complaints system as “an instrument of intimidation”.

Workplace bullying is often determined by the perspective of the person receiving the bullying and the Pickett case is a good illustration.

A further illustration may be drawn from a survey of public servants undertaken by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) mentioned by the Weekend Australian:

“More than a quarter of female public servants surveyed by the CPSU last year reported being bullied at work. but the most common incidents they cited were “being put down”, “excessive criticism” and “deliberate exclusion from normal conversation”.”

These can be elements of workplace bullying but they are more likely to be controlled more effectively by analysing the social relationships at work, the culture of disrespect in workplaces.  OHS deals with the stress, the harm, associated with a lack of respect or poor social relationships but the most effective control, the most effective prevention, comes from establishing a cooperative and respectful relationship between all levels of an organisation, and, sometimes, OHS professionals are not sufficiently skilled to assist in this.

Michael Tooma is quoted in the newspaper article making important points reported earlier this year:

“The reality is that many of the [bullying] cases that are brought are just someone being upset because they are being performance-managed or someone criticised their work.  I have investigated all sorts of cases where the complaint is no more than ‘A person didn’t say hello to me’ or ‘They didn’t speak to me before they opened the door’.”

Bullying and Stress

It should be remembered that much of the momentum for Australia’s workplace bullying guidances originated from a 1997 trade union survey of member into stress, not workplace bullying.  The findings on the contribution of bullying to workplace stress were so substantial that bullying codes were developed.  But the understanding of workplace bullying, over ten years later, shows that those initial bullying codes may have been a reaction to perception rather than reality.  From the WorkSafe figures above, the number of workplace claims has not come close to number of complaints, nor has the number of prosecutions or even investigations.  Workplace bullying is a reality but a smaller one than previously understood.

What workplace bullying has achieved over at least a decade, in Australia, is to distract workplaces and safety regulators from attending to the larger issue of stress.  By investigating the causes of workplace stress, a range of contributory factors would have been identified, including bullying, but the control measures would have been more coordinated and included a range of government authorities, support groups and health-related professionals.  The fragmented approach to managing workplace mental health that currently exists in Australia would have been less had the initial response by OHS regulators to the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ publicity, been more considered.  However, it should be added that the OHS approach to mental health and stress at that time was less mature, the evidence of harm was less obvious and the OHS profession was still dominated by the safety engineering perspective.

In the newspaper article, Josh Bornstein, an active labour lawyer and regular media spokesperson on bullying cases, is reported as arguing:

“…that what’s needed is a tribunal similar to the Fair Work Tribunal that would adjudicate bullying claims at an early stage rather than letting them fester and spiral out of control.” [link added]

Tooma provides qualified support to the concept but this is giving too much legitimacy to a workplace issue which, statistics are beginning to show, is more often perception than reality.  And is another tribunal necessary?

Control Measures and Strategy

There are several elements to addressing the issue of workplace bullying that need to operate concurrently.  There must be a streamlined and coordinated approach to the investigation of workplace bullying claims so that vexatious or unsupported claims are swiftly categorised and redirected to mediation or other established human resources and personnel management services.

Bullying needs to be considered by government and regulators in the broader context of mental health in the workplace, and stress, so that a wider range of support services and prevention mechanisms can be accessed.

The other element is for businesses, large and small, to be provided with guidance, support and training on the ways of establishing a respectful workplace from the beginning of that business.  At the same time that any business name is registered there should be a package of information and services that show the economic and managerial benefits of building a physically and mentally safe workplace.

The Weekend Australian article is a good summary of current bullying issues but is short on practical solutions.  That is certainly not the fault of the reporter, Richard Guilliatt, because there are very few who are prepared to advocate the changes to business operations, government regulatory authorities, and public and workplace health strategies that are necessary to address all the issues related to the harm generated by workplace stress and all of its disparate parts.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

5 thoughts on “Workplace Bullying is a significant challenge even if the reality is smaller than expected”

  1. Targets, victims and witnesses of bullying have a few avenues to pursue (as compared with victims of sexual harassment) when subject to obvious acts of aggression, spreading malicious rumours, excluding someone socially or from certain projects, undermining or impeding a person’s work or opinions, unjustified exclusion from certain projects, removing areas of responsibility without cause, insulting a person’s habits, attitudes, or private life and intruding upon a person’s privacy. Others include being rude or belligerent, destroying property, assaulting an individual, or setting impossible deadlines. In the United States, although bullying is recognized as detrimental to occupational health, there is little political or corporate interest in stopping it.

    In schoolyard bullying, the bullies are children, whose behaviour is controlled by the leaders, i.e. the school administration. In workplace bullying, however, the bullies are often the leaders themselves, i.e., the managers and supervisors. Therefore, reporting a bully to the HR dept, for example, may expose the target/victim to the risk of even more bullying, slower career advancement, or even termination, on the grounds of being a “troublemaker!”.

    Workplace bullying has severe consequences, including reduced effectiveness and high employee turnover. An employee who suffers any physical or psychiatric injury as a result of workplace bullying can confront the bully, report the bully to the HR department or to the trade union, if any, or bring a claim of negligence and/or a personal injury claim against both the employer and the abusive employee as joint respondents in the claim. If the law does not persuade employers to deal with workplace bullying, the economic reality will persuade them. Training sessions can help when combined with a confidential reporting structure, but it is difficult to alter the basic nature of some individuals, who may need counselling.

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

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