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Addressing the Bystander Effect in the Workplace

Bystander Effect - Workplace BullyingHuman behaviour is an interesting phenomenon. As a Psychologist, I often observe the actions of others and reflect on why it is we behave and respond to the world in the ways that we do.

A few days ago a Melbourne colleague sent me a link to an interesting article published in The Age on January 29th. An incident had occurred at Caulfield Railway Station involving a young man in significant distress and demonstrating at-risk behaviour. A witness interviewed for this news article reported that whilst she watched this situation unfold, she felt that if no one intervened this young man would jump onto the track.

At the request of one bystander for help, she approached and spoke to the young man until emergency services arrived. This witness, a former nurse, reported that she was appalled by the lack of intervention by some 40 other individuals waiting on the platform.

Reflecting on the article, I actually did not feel surprised at the lack of action from those at the station.

If it was you in this situation, how would you respond?

Interestingly, a lot of research has been conducted on such situations and how people respond to dangerous or traumatic events. Such research has demonstrated that in these situations, we are often reluctant to intervene and offer assistance to a victim or at-risk individual, and that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one individual will involve themselves in the situation. This is often referred to as the “Bystander Effect”.

In my experience as a consultant working with organisations, we see similar effects in response to occupational violence, workplace bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Whilst many employees may witness or even experience inappropriate and harmful behaviours and acts in the workplace, many fail to intervene.

So why does this phenomenon occur? Is it because we lack compassion or empathy, that we are immune to the painful experiences of others?

As humans, we are hard wired to avoid threatening situations. When we observe such behaviour in others, we exercise high degrees of caution due to feelings of uncertainty and inability to predict another’s behaviour. The Bystander Effect can occur as a result of this desire to avoid harm, whilst also being able to rationalise the decision not to intervene by diffusing responsibility to others. The more witnesses the more people to assign the responsibility to intervene. For many of those individuals at Caulfield Railway Station, they would have been much more likely to take action had they been the only other person present.

It is important for organisations to consider such effects of behaviour and psychology in the workplace. In order to eliminate harmful behaviour and mitigate the risks associated with experiencing violence, bullying, harassment or discrimination at work, employers should take action to encourage workers to take action.

What can organisations do to support employees to intervene or address harmful and at-risk behaviour when it occurs?

  • Provide employees and managers with training on how to respond to occupational violence and workplace bullying and role model desired behaviours as a part of your health, safety and wellbeing strategy
  • Ensure all employees and managers are aware of the appropriate processes and procedures for responding to emergency situations, including contact details for post incident support such as Employee Assistance Program providers and services such as Lifeline
  • Establish a network of support officers that have received adequate training in mental health first aid and basic counselling skills
  • Conduct awareness sessions and make information available to employees on mental health in the workplace
  • Develop a strong culture of health, safety and wellbeing across your workforce and encourage employee commitment to taking action to ensure a safe workplace for all

By implementing these strategies, employers can ensure they fulfil their duty of care to both those in distress and to those who may also me impacted by their behaviour.

Heather Ikin, Organisational Psychologist

Heather is a Registered Organisational Psychologist with eight years of experience across a diverse range of areas including Health, Safety and Wellbeing, Organisational Development, Career Development, Coaching, Selection and Recruitment and Change Management.