The effects of bullying in the workplace can be entirely devastating for individuals, their families and colleagues. The cost on mental health and well-being can far outweigh the cost in productivity and claims. No longer can organisations turn a blind eye to dysfunction in their workplaces. The Queensland Government, through its Workplace Health & Safety Arm Workcover, has produced an outstanding resource we have shared here, to assist in identifying the differences between what is bullying and what is workplace management and general conflict.
As the forces of change and technological progress bear down on organisations, workplace bullying has become a sensitive and unpredictable issue for managers and staff to navigate. Safe Work Australia data, for example, shows that the median cost of workplace bullying claims in Australia is around $20,900. And that’s not factoring in negative impacts on people’s mental health and wellbeing. However, what actually constitutes workplace bullying is often misunderstood.
What is bullying?
Workplace bullying is defined as repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety. Repeated behaviour refers to the persistent nature of the behaviour and can involve a range of behaviours over time.
Unreasonable behaviour means behaviour that a reasonable person, having considered the circumstances, would see as unreasonable. This includes behaviour that victimises, humiliates, intimidates or threatens others. A single incident of unreasonable behaviour is not considered to be workplace bullying. However, it may have the potential to escalate without intervention and should not be ignored.
What isn’t bullying?
Reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way
It is reasonable for managers and supervisors to allocate work and to give fair and reasonable feedback on a worker’s performance. These actions are not considered to be workplace bullying if they are carried out lawfully and in a reasonable manner, taking the particular circumstances into account.
Discrimination and sexual harassment
Behaviour that involves discrimination and sexual harassment in employment is unlawful under anti-discrimination, equal employment opportunity, workplace relations and human rights laws.
Differences of opinion and disagreements are generally not considered to be workplace bullying. People can have differences and disagreements in the workplace without engaging in repeated, unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety. However, in some cases, conflict that is not managed may escalate to the point where it meets the definition of workplace bullying.
What if I’m being bullied?
Safe Work Australia has published "Dealing with Workplace Bullying – a worker’s guide", which outlines how to seek advice and from whom, what you need to consider, and how to take the appropriate next steps if the behaviour does constitute bullying.
What if I witness bullying?
The Australian Human Rights Commission encourages people to be a supportive bystander if they witness bullying in any context. They suggest coping mechanisms including making it clear to colleagues that you won’t be involved in their bullying behaviour, and reporting the behaviour to the appropriate authority (e.g. your manager, human resources manager).
Employer obligations in dealing with bullying
Businesses have the primary duty of care to ensure, so far is reasonably practicable, that their workers are not exposed to health and safety risks. Workers also have a duty to take reasonable care that their acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of others. There are many resources that employers can use to help inform their approach to managing the risk of bullying in their workplace. Safe Work Australia suggests preventative and responsive actions employers can take to manage the risk of workplace bullying:
Consult with workers and health and safety representatives (if any).
Set the standard of workplace behaviour, e.g. through a code of conduct or workplace bullying policy.
Design safe systems of work by clearly defining jobs and providing workers with the resources, information and training they need to carry out their work safely.
Develop productive and respectful workplace relationships through good management practices and effective communication.
Provide information, training and supervision.
Review the effectiveness of actions taken to prevent workplace bullying.
Implement workplace bullying reporting and response procedures
Respond to bullying reports quickly.
Treat all reports seriously.
Allow the parties to explain their version of events.
Remain neutral and impartial towards everyone involved.
Communicate the process for responding to reports and the outcomes to all involved parties.
Provide support, e.g. employee assistance programs.
Attempt to resolve the matter.
Conduct a follow-up review.
Supporting a Worker who is Struggling
Managers can find it difficult to know how to take the right kind of early action to control the risk of psychological injuries in their workplace. While prevention is always better than cure in terms of fostering a positive work environment, it is important to also know how to talk to a worker who you notice might be struggling. Here are some practical tips from beyondblue to give you confidence in your interactions with your workers.
Creating a positive work environment
Provide constructive feedback to staff about their performance
Reward and celebrate achievements
Manage conflict quickly and effectively
Talk to your staff, particularly about changes that affect them
Don’t tolerate harassment and bullying
Be aware of the impact of unrealistic workloads and deadlines
What do you do if you notice someone is struggling
Watch for signs: It’s not your role to diagnose a mental health problem, but you can access expert information to know what to look for. Signs a person could be experiencing a mental health problem can include agitation, confusion, and generally not interacting with others in their usual manner.
Find an opportunity to speak to the person in private: Respect the person’s privacy and that they might be feeling particularly sensitive and vulnerable.
Talk to them about changes in their behaviour: It is important to be clear that you are coming from a place of concern for their wellbeing, rather than their job performance.
Encourage the person to seek help: beyondblue have a range of resources on their website and you can also encourage the person to talk to their GP about how they’re feeling.
Continue to support them: Reassure your worker that their job is safe and work with them to develop a work plan they feel comfortable with. It might involve temporarily modifying duties that could be aggravating their stress or anxiety.
Source: worksafe.qld.gov.au (2016)
Incorporate Psychology is a Work Cover psychological provider and specialises in working with individuals and organisations who are struggling with the effects of bullying. Call us today if you would like to find out more (07) 3852 2441.