Can bullying be quashed in the public service?


Despite the efforts of public sector agencies, bullying rates in Victoria have failed to shift in around a decade.

Concerned that the problem isn’t being fixed, the Victorian Public Sector Commission has announced it will make 2017 “the year of anti-bullying work”, launching a new strategic agenda to tackle the problem.

The VPSC’s data points to a sustained problem across the Victorian public sector. The commission’s annual People Matter survey shows that around one in four public sector employees witness what they believe to be bullying and one in five experience behaviour that feels like bullying.

Bullying leads to poor outcomes on a range of wellbeing measures and can damage organisational performance and budgets. for example, while 60% of people who have not experienced bullying say they rarely think about leaving their organisation, among people who had experienced bullying, this is only 19%.

“It’s not just a matter of removing a bully or a victim from a bad situation…”

The commission will be rolling out a range of initiatives through the remainder of the year in three main waves: setting the agenda, presenting options and channelling effort.

“We’ve had several strands of work on bullying underway for a while now,” says Dr Damian West, deputy commissioner at the VPSC. “In recent months we’ve taken stock of that work and sought to position it for best effect.”

First up, the commission will release a collection of case studies on government agencies that have improved their reported bullying rates. The studies show that significant improvements are possible, though organisations have to be dedicated to it.

“We found that it’s not just a matter of removing a bully or a victim from a bad situation, though that can help and may be necessary,” said West. “There’s often a cultural change exercise that has to occur as well.”

Predictive model to help pinpoint bullying

Later in the program, prevention and early intervention will take centre stage. The commission is looking at the organisational context in which bullying occurs, and has a new data tool, the psychosocial safety climate model, which should provide agencies with predictive insight into where bullying might occur in the future.

A prevention best practice guide is planned for September-October 2017.

Bullying is a major roadblock to the VPSC’s legislated mandate of strengthening the efficiency, effectiveness and capability of the public sector, says West.

“Bullying is not only bad for what it does to individuals at an interpersonal level, it can wreak havoc on workplaces,” he argues. “It’s one of those areas where striving to make things better for people is also smart business.”

The commission is working closely with government organisations and the Community and Public Sector Union to build on the work many are already doing in this space. The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, has been making major inroads into the problem since the Victorian Auditor General’s Office published its in March last year.

“Like so much else in government, good outcomes on bullying are a collective effort,” West said.

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