Should workplace bullying be treated as a health hazard?

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday September 11, 2019

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Researchers at the University of South Australia have developed an evidence-based solution to recognise and prevent bullying in the workplace.

Abusive behaviour stems from complex conditions and cannot always be blamed solely on individuals, according to Uni SA’s Associate Professor Michelle Tuckey. 

“Workplace bullying is often mistaken as a problem between staff members, an interpersonal problem, when evidence shows it’s really a reflection of how the organisation functions,” she said.

“It’s a cultural issue, a systems issue – if you have a healthy culture and healthy systems, then you don’t get a lot of bullying, but if you don’t have that culture and those systems, bullying is more common.”

Tuckey and her team developed a method to help businesses cultivate a workplace culture that diagnoses and prevents bullying.

“We’re taking a safety risk-management framework and treating bullying as a work health and safety hazard, following the normal risk management approach, which is to identify hazards, assess the level of risk, implement risk controls, and then monitor and evaluate,” she said. 

“An important feature of our approach is the involvement of staff and managers in each stage.”

Read more: How high-pressure health and human services workplaces turn toxic

Building on six years of research, the solution was developed after the team looked at 342 documented bullying complaints lodged with SafeWork SA. They analysed roughly 5500 pages of information to understand how culture and systems in the workplace relate to bullying and feelings of mistreatment.

“Then we turned that into a survey-based measurement tool with 10 different domains used to deliver a score predictive of a broad range of work health and safety outcomes, including exposure to bullying,” Tuckey said.

The risk management approach is currently being trialled with peak health and safety bodies. 

“The diagnostic tool shows an organisation where they should focus their efforts and prioritise their resources,” Tuckey said. “Many organisations already have policies, training and complaint systems in place; our tool complements those structures to prevent bullying behaviour.”

Bullying is not uncommon in the public service.

A recent report from South Australia’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption detailed the results from a voluntary survey of 12,656 public officers. 

“Survey participants from every agency spoke of perceived incidents of bullying and harassment, and nepotism and favouritism,” Commissioner Bruce Lander found.

“Some responses strongly emphasised the toll those behaviours have had on the wellbeing of staff. All public officers have a right to be treated fairly and appropriately and to be safe at work.”

Read more: SA public servants report corruption, laziness, incompetence, bullying, nepotism and the rest

Another survey, in Tasmania, found similar results, with 23% respondents stating they had been bullied at work in the previous year.

A study earlier this year revealed that a bully boss can cause staff to feel undervalued, which can then result in them reducing their effort. It can also increase stress, which could cause staff members to treat their colleagues unfairly.

Following its 2018 state of the public sector survey, the NSW Public Service Commission identified stress, senior leadership support, role clarity and performance management as organisational and cultural factors related to bullying. To tackle this, they have taken a prevention-based approach. Similarly, the Australian Public Service Commission has encouraged risk- management measures to deal with workplace cultures that lead to bullying.

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