The first Annual Statement on workplace bullying data gets a C+

Recently Safe Work Australia released  its first annual statement on “Psychosocial health and safety and bullying in Australian workplaces“.  This is a terrific initiative but it has a significant flaw – it combines statistical data for harassment and bullying even though they are different hazards, have different remedies, are usually handled by different professions in many organisations, and have different external appeal options.

The Annual Statement itself quotes its origin:

 “The Committee recommends that Safe Work Australia issues an annual national statement which updates any emerging trends of its collated data from each of the state and territory regulators, and the Commonwealth, with respect to psychosocial health and safety generally and workplace bullying specifically“. (emphasis added)

Nowhere in the Annual Statement is there any data specifically addressing workplace bullying.  Bullying is always linked with harassment, contrary to the brief from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment’s workplace bullying report, as I read it.

In explanation of the recommendation quoted above (Recommendation 18, page 154), the Committee’s report into workplace bullying makes no mention of harassment.

“The need to improve Australia’s evidence base in workplace bullying was discussed throughout the inquiry. As highlighted in preceding sections, the Committee believes that the new national service could use its collated information to improve the evidence base.

A key challenge for the Committee, and consequently for state/territory and federal governments, is that responding to the problem of workplace bullying is challenging as currently there is very little evidence that would direct what is needed to assist stakeholders to combat the problem.

Though this inquiry has been a mechanism for the community to provide feedback to policy makers about what is needed and how it should be delivered, a long-term study of workplace bullying in Australia would allow regulators and governments to assess the impact of their policies and better understand the prevalence of bullying at work.” (pages 153-4)

This Annual Statement does not satisfy the Committee’s need (or the community’s) “for evidence that would direct what is needed to assist stakeholders to combat the problem” of workplace bullying.  Nor does it seem to be the beginning of a “long-term study of workplace bullying in Australia”. It may be the best that Safe Work Australia is able to achieve given its tight budget, limited resources and the apparently lack of political support from the current government but the economic and political status of Safe Work Australia is another story.

Safe Work Australia says in its own November 2013 guide on workplace bullying that:

“Unreasonable behaviour may involve discrimination or sexual harassment which in isolation is not considered to be bullying.” (page 5, emphasis added)

In response to its own question “Is the behaviour bullying or not?”  Safe Work Australia advises that

“The type of behaviour occurring may need to be determined to develop an appropriate response. For example, if the behaviour is discrimination or sexual harassment it will require a different response to workplace bullying. ” (page 14, emphasis added)

It seems difficult to identify this “different response” while continuing to overlap workplace bullying and harassment data.

Safe Work Australia references the Fair Work Commission in its Annual Statement implying a justification of “blending” harassment and workplace bullying data but the FWC anti-bullying document referenced fails to include the term “harassment”.

[It is important to note that the Victorian Workcover Authority also makes no mention of “harassment” in its workplace bullying guidance from October 2012]

The challenge of differentiation is not something only facing Australian companies and OHS professions.  A 2006 European literature review conducted by the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) provides an academic assessment of the definitional mess that includes the relevance of harassment to workplace bullying.

The Standing Committee’s intention in Recommendation 18 seemed to be for the government to provide a detailed analysis of workplace bullying, specifically, in order to better quantify costs and impacts of this particular workplace hazard but also to clearly identify preventative interventions.

Unless there is a clear delineation between harassment and workplace bullying, companies will struggle to prevent both workplace hazards and will increasingly rely on legal redress or proceed through the FWC – a process that often seems to increase the harm felt by the subject of the bullying.

The Annual Statement could have been a defining report on workplace bullying that identified trends that could, in turn, identify effective harm prevention measures. It reflects current approaches to, and sources of, workplace bullying data rather than progressing the debate and discussion, and the evidence base, on this insidious workplace hazard.

Kevin Jones

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