While most of us like to think that bullying is something that only happens in the school yard, the sad reality is that half of all Aussie employees will experience workplace bullying during their careers.
What is workplace bullying?
According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, an employee is considered to be experiencing bullying at work when:
- A person or group of people repeatedly act unreasonable towards them or a group of workers
- The behavior creates a risk to health and safety
Unreasonable behavior includes victimizing, humiliating, intimidating or threatening. Whether a behavior is unreasonable can depend on “whether a reasonable person might see the behavior as unreasonable in the circumstances.”
Examples of bullying include:
- Behaving aggressively
- Teasing or practical jokes
- Pressuring someone to behave inappropriately
- Excluding someone from work-related events
- Unreasonable work demands
It’s important to note that reasonable management actions (such as decisions regarding poor performance and disciplinary action) don’t constitute bullying. Bullying and discrimination are also two different issues.
While this definition may lead us to think of bullying as an individual or interpersonal issue, research shows that broader factors, such as poor organisational culture and a lack of leadership, are actually the main drivers of workplace bullying.
Bullying in the workplace can have a range of negative effects. Targets of workplace bullying have higher rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
No individual should have to encounter a hostile work environment, and, on a larger scale, bullying contributes to a toxic workplace and can increase absenteeism and reduce productivity. In 2010, the Productivity Commission found that bullying at work costs Australian organisations between $6 billion and $36 billion a year in lost productivity.
With this in mind, it’s clearly in businesses’ best interest to actively stop workplace bullying.
While everyone is legally protected from workplace bullying, research suggests it is young males who have limited social support at work, and those who work in stressful environments, that are most at risk.
Recognising bullying in the workplace
An important step in stopping workplace bullying is recognising when it happens and actively taking steps to put an end to it. As bullies often rely on intimidation and fear to silence their victims, knowing the signs is crucial in addressing the issue.
Particularly in the case of young staff, who may feel as though they have no power to stop the bullying, it’s important to keep an eye out of the following signs:
Employees who are being bullied may suddenly have an increase in sick days or take leave in order to avoid the toxic environment. This is a direct consequence of bullying in the workplace and one of the more obvious signs that there are larger issues.
On the other end of the scale, employees may continue to attend work but reduce their productive output. When their mental health is compromised due to bullying, an employee will continue to show up to work but be unable to focus, have a short attention span or be forgetful of tasks throughout the work day. Presenteeism is becoming more and more common for workplaces that are psychologically unsafe.
High staff turnover
As stated before, institutional issues such as poor management can be a massive driver of workplace bullying and often, employees will simply move out of the organisation rather than attempt to change the culture or stop the bullying. As a result, high staff turnover can be a sign of a toxic workplace and a bigger issue at play.
How do we deal with workplace bullying?
Businesses need to take a proactive approach to prevent any workplace bullying. Some suggestions by Safe Work Australia include:
- Consulting with workers and health and safety representatives to find out if bullying is occurring or if there are factors likely to increase the risk of workplace bullying
- Setting the standard of workplace behaviour, for example through a code of conduct or workplace bullying policy
- Designing 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
- Implementing workplace bullying reporting and response procedures
- Developing productive and respectful workplace relationships through good management practices and effective communication
- Providing information and training on workplace bullying policies and procedures, available support and assistance, and how to prevent and respond to workplace bullying
- Prioritising measures that foster and protect the psychological health of employees