According to The Australian newspaper on 5 January 2012 the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is extremely critical of Safe Work Australia’s draft Code of Practice on Workplace Bullying. The ACTU has said that the draft code has a “fundamental flaw”
“… the failure to address workplace bullying in the same framework as any other workplace hazard/risk.”
This is a significant challenge but without access to the ACTU submission on the draft code it is difficult to determine the exact context of this fundamental flaw.
Of more concern is the apparent move by the ACTU, according to The Australian, to have single instances of inappropriate behavior covered by the workplace bullying code. This is contrary to the bullying concept that only repeated instances of abuse should be considered bullying.
Regardless of this challenge to established definitions, it is very hard to see how such a situation could be enforced by either OHS representatives or OHS regulators. The regulators have struggled for years with the existing definition and could have no effective role in workplaces if the unions’ wishes were successful.
Business groups are understandably concerned by the inclusion of restructuring and other organisational and managerial issues as contributory factors to workplace bullying. Workers’ compensation claims do increase during restructuring and redundancies but these claims are more to do with the complexities of stress than bullying.
Again the unions and lawmakers are placing too much emphasis on bullying and not enough on the overarching concepts of mental health and stress. Stress manifests in many ways of which one can be bullying.
Business groups also express concern that workplace bullying is included in a Code rather than a guidance as a Code may have a stronger legal standing in Court proceedings. This argument occurred in Victoria over a decade ago when the Victorian Government “weakened” its commitment and introduced a guidance note rather than the Code that the unions and the safety profession was hoping for. It could be argued that, had that jurisdiction introduced a Code, the prevention and treatment of workplace bullying would have been greatly improved.
Whether workplace bullying is addressed by Code or guidance may have little relevance to those suffering the stress that comes from being bullied at work.
The debate on the Draft Code on Workplace Bullying has too narrow a focus. If the workplace hazard is to be treated in the same framework as other hazards, it will be necessary to aim for the elimination of bullying and not accept less effective administrative controls such as training in personal coping strategies. Such an aim can only be sought if bullying is considered within the broader context of psychosocial hazards which includes stress, mental health, fatigue and others.
The debate on bullying is a distraction from the real workplace hazards of stress and mental health; hazards that are being ignored because effective controls can only be implemented if there is a substantial reassessment of how employers treat their labour.
This debate will not be resolved until governments develop a strategy that addresses the multitude of psychosocial hazards and show the business case that supports this strategy. The pieces of evidence exist but the government needs to pull these together to address this substantial business and social cost.