Bullying in the public sector: NSW data shows incidents decreasing

By Harley Dennett

September 5, 2014

After a troubling set of workplace bullying findings two years ago, the New South Wales public service commissioner set his mind to turning around the figures. Now two years later, a new survey reveals whether the efforts were successful.

The Public Service Commission’s 2014 People Matter employee survey main findings are out this week, and while the official commentary is held back for the State of the Sector report in November, preliminary results do indicate progress at a state-wide level. Respondents who said they personally experienced bullying over the 12-month period are down to 23% from 29% in 2012, and the percentage who said they witnessed bullying over the period was down to 41% from 48% in 2012.

While physical bullying was less common, there were very high rates of negative body language, gestures or glances among those who said they were bullied, along with being mistreated or avoided.

High frequency bullying behaviours (% 3 or more times in the last 12 months) – click for larger version
High frequency bullying behaviours (3% or more times in the last 12 months) – click for larger version

Public Service Commissioner Graeme Head told The Mandarin the results in the state’s first People Matter employee survey in 2012 showed “quite high prevalence” of bullying, both witnessing and involvement, in agency workplaces. Almost 30% of the more than 60,000 respondents said they had themselves experienced bullying in the previous 12 months. Up to two-thirds in some agencies, such as NSW Health, said they had witnessed bullying.

While these results were shocking in their own right, since it was the first such survey in NSW with nothing else to benchmark it against, it was compared to Victoria’s equivalent 10-year-running People Matter survey. Victoria has consistently seen a rate of 20% saying they’ve personally experienced bullying in the previous 12 months, and 36% say they’ve witnessed it — far lower than the results seen in NSW.

Following those results there was some commentary that performance management was being misconstrued as bullying, and from the Public Sector Association that performance management was being used as a cover for bullying. Regardless, workplace bullying can be a serious and costly problem. Then-minister for finance and services Greg Pearce counted the cost of compensation claims in NSW for bullying and harassment over the 2009-12 period at almost $100 million and WorkCover released a Bullying Prevention Kit.

Early in 2013, in his first ever direction issued to agency heads, Head sought co-operation finding what was known about the issue in the various state bodies and what, if anything, they were already doing about it. Since there was some initial confusion in the early commentary following the 2012 results being published about what constituted bullying, Head provided the definition:

“Bullying at work is repeated unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.”

However, all NSW agencies reported having “basic policies in place to prevent or counter bullying”. The policies are mostly implemented through communication and training, and all agencies have some form of grievance process. In addition, following the first bullying results, agencies told Head they reported the findings and created or updated workplace culture programs to reflect a more “respectful workplace”.

Yet, either the original policies weren’t working, or the survey results were a misnomer. Head told The Mandarin: “As a consequence of that work, I established earlier this year a roundtable of bullying, chaired by myself, with participants from key public sector agencies, but importantly from all public sector unions. That roundtable looked at all the literature and experience on best practice on preventing workplace bullying, but also managing the issue where it does exist.”

Among that literature are the teachings from the Victorian Public Service Commission into bullying, which found reporting mechanisms were not sufficient — fewer than 2% of people experiencing bullying make official complaints. It also found the highest levels of bullying in the health sector, and that the main perpetrators are colleagues, managers and others in positions of power, either through direct reporting chains or as holders of key information. Women are over-represented in those who have experienced bullying, as are people with disabilities and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, but not those of non-English speaking backgrounds.

The NSW roundtable is set to conclude its work later this year, Head says.

The state’s Public Sector Association has not yet commented on the 2014 People Matter survey findings. It has requested a briefing from the commission later this month.

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