Bullying in the workplace

Workplace bullying. Health care workers and admin officers the most bullied in Australia.

All of us agree with the need to reduce bullying in our schools. Bullying is well known to cause depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, and health complaints. Sadly, these issues may persist into adulthood.
Bullying doesn’t stop when we leave school. Workplace bullying and harassment are the second highest cause of mental stress (behind work pressure), cited as contributing to a quarter of all workers’ compensation claims in the ‘mental stress’ category. Workplace bullying has similar symptoms to childhood bullying, and the effects can be just as devastating, impacting on family, personal relationships, career, having severe medical impacts and creating suicidal thoughts.

Safe Work Australia has reported that the top two occupations for experiencing harassment and/or bullying are clerical and admin workers, surprisingly coming ahead of prison officers, who are the third highest category of bullying and harassment claims. Some of you will not be surprised to learn that health care (not including hospitals) is the industry which attracts the highest level of bullying and harassment, followed closely by civic, professional and other interest group services.

The most recent survey available from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that 67% of employees eligible for workers’ compensation reported they experienced mental stress but did not apply for workers’ compensation, meaning that claim figures could be very conservative when it comes to indicating the seriousness of bullying and harassment in the workplace, particularly when it comes to lower socio-economic jobs, where workers may not be reporting incidences.

I recently saw an interesting video, asking young workers about bullying. They were asked ‘What is bullying’ and how would they deal with it ─ especially if it was their boss. While a few claimed they would confront the bully, others said that if the bully was their boss, they would simply leave.

So what is the difference between bullying and harassment?

While most employers treat them as the same thing, there are differences between bullying and harassment which are important for employers to know and understand. The primary difference is that the law relating to each of these areas is different, meaning that the approaches you take to prevent these behaviours should also differ.

Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable and unwelcome behaviour directed towards an employee or group of employees that creates a risk to health and safety. Bullying is a health and safety issue, and your obligation to prevent bullying relates to your duty as an employer to provide a safe workplace for your employees. If you allow bullying to occur in your workplace, you can be investigated and prosecuted by your State regulator for a breach of health and safety legislation.

Workplace harassment is unwanted behaviour that offends, humiliates or intimidates a person, and targets them on the basis of a characteristic such as gender, race or ethnicity. Harassment relates to the prohibition in anti-discrimination laws against sexual harassment and sex-based discrimination in the workplace. These laws differ from health and safety laws in that a victim of harassment can make a complaint to an external agency – in effect, launching a legal proceeding against your company.

What should you do as an employer?

The best course of action for any employer or HR professional is to create and implement bullying and harassment policies.

Your bullying policy should focus on preventing bullying behaviour, and management need to act immediately when a report or complaint of bullying arises to eliminate the source of the bullying. This applies even if a victim of bullying does not wish to make a complaint. This is because your work health and safety obligations as an employer may require you to investigate the issue and make findings about the behaviour to ensure that it does not occur again.

Any policy and procedure dealing with harassment should focus on providing effective resolution of the complaint from the perspective of the complainant, and ideally prevent the employment relationship from breaking down.

The policies should be supported by the provision of training inclusive of the prevention and response process using scenario based examples.

If you need help with creating bullying and harassment policies or the provision of training in your workplace, your HR or legal department will be able to assist you. For smaller companies without a HR department, help is at hand from work health and safety consultants like ours. We would be happy to have a confidential discussion about your policy and training needs, or any incident where you feel bullying or harassment have occurred.

Further reading:
Safe Work Australia-Workplace Bullying FAQs

— Amy Towers, Principal Consultant, Risk Collective

Amy Towers is a risk expert with more than 10 years of experience working as a health and safety specialist and consultant. Since receiving her BAppSc in Occupational Health and Safety from RMIT in 2002, she has provided health and safety advice and solutions to clients across a variety of industries, including manufacturing, construction, warehousing, healthcare and retail. She has also assisted senior corporate executives for large corporations. In 2014, Amy founded Safe Work Consulting, now Risk Collective, a risk management firm specialising in workplace health and safety. It offers clients exceptional professional service in end-to-end safety management systems that are simple and sustainable.

We are always happy to hear your questions or have a chat about how we could work together on your work health and safety, training, induction, and what your PCBU duties are. Amy is available as a Safety Consultant for businesses in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. Please contact us if you would like a confidential chat or consultation.

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