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Workplace Bullying: Understanding Your Responsibilities

“How much do I really know about workplace bullying?”

If you are a manager or work within a health and safety or human resources function, this is one of the key questions you should be asking yourself moving into 2015.

Whilst workplace bullying is increasingly being recognised as a health and safety issue, many managers are still not adequately equipped to deal with this subject in the workplace.

What is meant by this statement is that many workplaces have not yet set up adequate systems to ensure managers understand the workplace health and safety obligations in relation to workplace bullying, and how to manage it within safety management and human resource frameworks.

I have trained a substantial number of managers on this topic, and it’s always disconcerting to hear the response when I ask frontline and middle managers if they have previously undertaken any health and safety training. Thus, it seems many managers are not well informed on how to fulfil their responsibilities in adequately responding to health and safety issues in the workplace.

In November 2013, Safe Work Australia released a new guidance note for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying. The reality is that organisations have responsibilities under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act 2011), which are well outlined in this document. Yet experience tells me that many organisations are still to implement this guide and ensure they have an adequate system in place to comply with legislative requirements.

Workplace Bullying: What You Need to Know

Our white paper on workplace bullying goes into more detail in regards to this definition but in brief ’workplace bullying’ is defined as repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker, or a group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety.

Everyone in the workplace has a duty to help ensure that workplace bullying does not occur. Under the WHS Act 2011, employers have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practical, that they provide a work environment free from the risks associated with workplace bullying, that they put in place a system to monitor, prevent and manage workplace bullying, and that workers are adequately informed and trained on the topic of workplace bullying prevention and management.

Furthermore, it is important to note that workplace bullying does not include reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way, discrimination, or sexual harassment. Discrimination and sexual harassment are unlawful in Australian organisations and dealt with under other legislation.

What are the Consequences of Not Adequately Managing Workplace Bullying?

In my experience speaking with managers on this topic, many organisations fail to implement prevention and management strategies for workplace bullying because it is perceived to be so costly and challenging. Whilst any health and safety intervention will reasonably cost employers money, what is more compelling is the considerable cost of failing to take action.

Workplace bullying results in many adverse consequences for the targets of workplace bullying. Many experience psychological injuries, suffering from significant symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress-related illnesses, as well as physical complaints such as sleep disturbance, gastrointestinal disorders and musculoskeletal problems. Many workers take time off from work, and for those that are in attendance, are often not working at full capacity.

Organisations face considerable impacts as a result of workplace bullying, many of which result in high costs. These include factors such as: absenteeism, presenteeism, turnover, decreased morale, commitment and trust, establishment of a negative reputation, increased insurance premiums, legal and compensation costs, and counselling expenses.

If this is not yet sounding expensive, consider that Safe Work Australia’s recent report on Psychosocial Safety Climate and Worker Health (2012) reported a workplace bullying prevalence rate of 6.8%; a review of research in the area of workplace bullying suggests that 35-50% of these workers will quit their jobs.

So in an organisation with 1000 employees, in an annual period an employer might conservatively expect to lose a third of the 5% of their workforce that is currently experiencing workplace bullying (17 employees). Mercer Consulting has indicated that turnover can cost an organisation anywhere between 50% and 150% of the individual’s annual salary.  Based on these statistics, paying an average salary of $60k a year, workplace bullying could cost an organisation of this size $510K or more in the space of a year, just in turnover alone.

How Can I Manage the Risks of Workplace Bullying?

According to the WHS Act 2011, health and safety risks must be minimised and where possible eliminated, so far as is reasonably practicable. Workplace bullying prevention requires a considered and proactive approach from employers, focused upon early identification of unreasonable behaviour, and the implementation and review of appropriate control measures. It also requires that management and health and safety personnel understand the workplace factors that increase the risk of workplace bullying, and understand how to obtain data to aid in this process.

Factors that increase the risk of workplace bullying include:

  • The presence of workplace stressors – high job demands, limited job control, organisational change, role conflict and ambiguity, job insecurity, and lack of appropriate behavioural standards
  • Leadership styles that are overly strict, directive, critical, controlling, prevent workers from being involved in decision-making, or provide little to no guidance to workers
  • Systems of work – lack of resources, lack of training, poorly designed rostering, and unreasonable performance measures or timeframes.
  • Work relationships – poor communication, lack of support, and hostility
  • Workforce characteristics – high proportions of casual workers, young workers, new workers, apprentices/trainees, and workers in minority groups.

In order to identify whether or not risks are present in your workplace, you should consider engaging in regular consultation with employees and health and safety representatives, conduct exit interviews, seek feedback from managers and supervisors about their work areas, put reporting mechanisms in place and monitor incoming data, review HR data such as absenteeism and turnover statistics, and be observant of any changes in team dynamics and work relationships.

Organisations should consider taking the following actions to ensure that reasonable steps have been taken to prevent workplace bullying from occurring:

  1. Implement an appropriately designed workplace bullying policy that has been developed in consultation with workers
  2. Ensure that there are sound reporting and response procedures in place
  3. Ensure that employees and managers receive appropriate training and access to educational materials on the prevention and management of workplace bullying
  4. Design a safe system of work by ensuring that systems and processes are fair, that jobs are clearly defined and that employees have the necessary resources to undertake their jobs
  5. Promote positive leadership practices, providing appropriate training and development opportunities to all existing and aspiring managers and leaders
  6. Develop a positive workplace culture

Some Important Points to Note

Workplace bullying encompasses every person present in the work environment. Employers need to provide support to workers that may be susceptible to bullying from volunteers, clients and members of the public. It is also expected that employers will manage the risks of workplace bullying associated with electronic communication and the use of social media.

Workplace bullying is best managed through an appropriate and timely response. Managers and HR personnel need to understand how to determine if the behaviour is workplace bullying, identify if any employees are at immediate risk, and consider the best approach in effectively managing the issue. Neglecting to take action may result in lengthy compensation claims, litigation, and even prosecution under the WHS Act 2011 for failure to provide a safe work environment.

The reality of workplace bullying is that it is a very complex and sensitive problem in the workplace that results in a risk to the health and safety of workers. Workplace bullying can occur in any organisation, to anyone, and by anyone. It is critical that organisations understand actions that can be taken to prevent and manage bullying in the workplace.

As a first step, take the time to review Safe Work Australia’s guidance note – it is very detailed with good information to support employers in understanding how to address bullying in the workplace.

TMS Consulting works with organisations to provide end-to-end solutions in understanding, preventing and responding to workplace bullying. If you would like to know more about how you can implement an effective strategy to prevent and manage workplace bullying, contact us for more information.

About the author

TMS Consulting