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Q&A On Workplace Bullying

We spoke with Jaydene Tucker, Registered Psychologist with PeopleSense by Altius, to discuss workplace bullying – does it exist, if so how, and to mark National Day of Action Against Bullying, what can be done?

Does bullying in the workplace really happen?
Yes, unfortunately I have had an array of clients that have presented with issues related to bullying within the workplace. People underestimate the impact that bullying and toxic work environments have on both psychological and physical health.

Despite increasing awareness of the issue, reports from organisations such as Safe Work Australia indicate that workplace bullying is on the rise. These trends definitely call for more to be done, which is why days such as the National Day of Action Against Bullying are so important.

In which industries and sectors is workplace bullying commonplace? 
Workplace bullying can happen in any organisation or workplace and it’s been interesting to see the wide range of employee types that these issues span across – different ages, genders, industries and position levels.

Research by Safe Work Australia has indicated that there have been high levels of bullying across labour industries, health and community services, education, administration and defence. That being said, I have certainly had clients outside of these industry and sector types that have reported incidents of bullying.  

How does bullying typically occur?
When we talk about ‘bullying’ we’re referring to repeated behaviours where someone is acting unfavourably towards someone, or a group of people. These behaviours can be separated into ‘overt’ and ‘covert’ bullying behaviours.

Overt behaviours are quite explicit and may include things such as physical assault or violence; verbal or written abuse; debasing someone on the grounds of gender, age, religion or sexual orientation; teasing someone or making someone the brunt of practical jokes; or spreading misinformation or malicious rumours. 

Covert behaviours on the other hand may be less obvious and may include things such as unreasonably overloading a person with work; setting timelines that are difficult to achieve or constantly changing deadlines; unfairly assigning unpleasant tasks; unfair treatment relating to accessing entitlements such as leave or training; denying breaks or changing work schedules to inconvenience someone.

How does awareness of workplace bullying help?
The real challenge that I often see in my practice comes when bullying is in the form of covert behaviours. Employees often report feeling that there is not enough explicit evidence to justify their claims, leading to reluctance to take action in fear that their claims won’t be taken seriously.

Awareness is critical to people knowing what constitutes bullying, what impact it has, how common bullying is, what peoples’ responsibilities are, and what actions can be taken to address it. Campaigns provide organisations the opportunity to establish a strong stance against bullying, to inform employees on bullying and workplace policies and procedures relating to bullying and to generally foster communication about this important issue.

Where should the focus of campaigns and interventions be?
Interventions to reduce bullying and harassment in the workplace should focus on promoting psychological health in the workplace. Research by Safe Work Australia has indicated that as workers’ psychological and emotional demands increase, so did the prevalence of bullying. In contrast, as job resources and management commitment to psychological health and safety increased, the prevalence of bullying decreased.

This research points to the need for a holistic approach in addressing this issue at all levels. By taking a holistic approach, organisations can work towards establishing a positive workplace culture and climate that values and prioritises psychological health.

What can organisations do?
There are a number of actions that can be taken by organisations to prevent and address bullying in the workplace. Some of these might include:

Organisational policies and procedures should be clear and easily accessible to all employees. It’s critical that these policies and procedures are updated regularly to reflect the current work environment or context, such as by having adaptations to newer forms of bullying such as through social media.

Organisational systems should focus on establishing ways to foster upwards and downwards communication about bullying and harassment. Processes for upwards communication are often where we see organisations fall short, where employees might be reluctant to speak out or share information about bullying due to fears of the implications.

Monitoring of bullying in the workplace should be regular and comprehensive. Information should not just rely on the number of bullying claims made, they should delve deeper into the workplace culture and climate such as through anonymous surveys, interviews or focus groups.

Raising awareness, providing education and training on matters relevant to bullying, harassment, and risk factors should be regular. Since supervisors are most commonly perceived as the source of bullying behaviours, efforts should be made to provide education and training on acceptable behaviours while managing the performance of employees.

Managing work conditions that place increased psychological and emotional demands and thus, predispose bullying is encouraged. This might require an analysis of job designs and finding ways to manage work conditions such as high demand, high pressure, high competition, and low control situations in the workplace.

What can individuals do who are witnessing bullying?
Someone on the outskirts of bullying behaviour may be reluctant to get involved, this may be due fear about the possible implications if they address this issue. There are two approaches that can be taken by witnesses as detailed below:

Don’t participate by ensuring that you are treating colleagues fairly and role model behaviours of treatment with dignity and respect. Do not harass, mock or spread gossip about others. Make it clear to your colleagues that you won’t be involved in bullying behaviour and never forward on or respond to messages or photos that may be offensive.

Don’t be a bystander if observing someone else being bullied. Call out bullying behaviour when you see it and tell the bully that their behaviour is inappropriate. Support the person who is being bullied to ask for help or discuss the situation with someone more senior or an anti-bullying organisation so that they can take the most appropriate action.

What can individuals do if they are being bullied themselves?
Someone that is being bullied may be reluctant to take action, this may be due to feeling that their claims will not be taken seriously, or fear about the possible implications if they do. There are two approaches that can be taken by targets as detailed below:

Take informal actions such as by approaching the bully to “nip it in the bud”. You may choose to keep a written record of instances of bullying and use this information to seek advice from peers, your supervisor or manager. Check for a workplace bullying policy and liaise with others to implement a prevention and management plan.

Follow formal procedures by getting advice from your relevant union, anti-bullying organisations or your Federal and/or State regulators for workplace health and safety. You may choose to lodge a formal complaint through Human Resources or a state regulator. If there is a serious fear for safety, you might also consult your local Police.

How do we take action on workplace bullying?
Safe Work Australia is a great starting point with links to a range of workplace bullying programs. For something more personally tailored, Altius Group has a highly experienced team of organisationally-trained, registered psychologists that offer tailored support services to a wide range of organisations across Australia.

Our consultants are always happy to speak with organisations to create strategies that provide solutions to improving workplace psychosocial safety at the employee, team and organisational level. We understand the psychological support that benefits organisations and their employees and have developed a suite of services to meet these needs, including:

  • Workplace culture and climate surveys
  • Psychological workplace assessments
  • Workplace education and training
  • Employee Assistance Program Counselling
  • Manager Assistance Programs
  • Mediation
  • Occupational rehabilitation support (through work cover claims)
  • Critical Incident Response
  • Factual Investigations

PeopleSense by Altius