Workplace bullying is a major concern for companies and remains a serious issue in Australia. If left unchecked, workplace bullying can lead to significant consequences such as reduced productivity, physical and mental health problems, increased absenteeism and at its worst workers compensation claims, legal action and lawsuits.
What is workplace bullying?
Bullying is the repeated unreasonable behaviour directed at an individual or a group of individuals, that is victimizing, humiliating, intimidating or threatening, and creates a risk to health and safety. It includes but is not limited to:
- Abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments
- Aggressive and intimidating conduct
- Belittling or humiliating comments
- Practical jokes or initiation
- Unjustified criticism or complaints
- Deliberately excluding someone from work related activities
- Withholding information that is vital for effective work performance
- Setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines
- Setting tasks that are unreasonably below or beyond a person’s skill level
- Denying access to information, supervision, consultation or resources to the detriment of the worker
- Spreading misinformation or malicious rumours, and
- Changing work arrangements such as rosters that leads to deliberate inconvenience to a particular worker or workers.
How can workplace bullying occur?
It is important to realise that the perpetrator of workplace bullying is not just the stereotypical angry boss yelling at a cringing worker. Workplace bullying can be directed at a single worker or group of workers, and be carried out by one or more workers. It can occur:
- Downwards from supervisors/ managers to workers
- Sideways from a co-worker or a group of co-workers
- Upwards from workers to supervisors/ managers
- Even from other people at the workplace such as a customer, client, students and members of the public.
Bullying can be carried out in different ways including verbal, physical abuse, through email, text messages and social media channels. Bullying can also continue outside of the workplace and can be either intentional or unintentional.
Worrying levels of bullying and harassment
A report of psychological safety climate and worker health in Australia (the Australian Workplace Barometer project) found a serious concern regarding the levels of workplace bullying and harassment*. The results are particularly alarming for women as they report significantly higher levels of bullying and for significantly longer periods of time. Disturbingly the project also found that over 20 percent of workers are humiliated in front of others, and nearly 42 percent of males reported that they have been sworn or yelled at in the workplace.
Your obligations as the employer
Safe Work Australia states that you as an employer must treat the risk of bullying just as you would any other workplace hazard**. This means failure to take steps to manage the risk of workplace bullying can result in a breach of Work Health and Safety (WHS) Laws.
Creating a safe workplace
Bullying in the workplace can exist even though there might not be obvious signs of harassment. The risk of workplace bullying can be minimised by taking a pro-active approach such as:
- Regular worker consultations
- Implementing control measures to manage bullying; and
- Early identification or unreasonable behaviors and situations where harassment can occur.
A worker who reasonably believes they have been bullied at work may apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop the workplace bullying. More information is available at www.fwc.gov.au
* Dollard, M., Bailey, T., McLinton, S., Richards, P., McTernan, W., Taylor, Bond, S., Dec 2012, The Australian Workplace Barometer: Report on Psychosocial Safety Climate and Worker Health in Australia, Safe Work Australia.
** Safe Work Australia, May 2016, Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying.
- Safe Work Australia, 2021, Annual Statement: ‘Psychosocial health and safety and bullying in Australian workplaces’, 6th
- Safe Work Australia, “Managing Risks – Bullying” https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/safety-topic/hazards/bullying/managing-risks, November 2021.