A growing number of workers believe that instances of bullying in the workplace are either ignored or encouraged by their employers, with immediate managers often cited as the biggest offenders.

A quarterly report released by the Fair Work Commission showed that 151 workers across the country had applied for an official order to stop bullying since national anti-bullying laws came into effect on January 1, 2014.

More than 109 applicants alleged that unreasonable behaviour came from their manager and almost half the complaints,

44 per cent, came from people working at companies with more than 100 employees. The clerical and retail industries had the highest number of formal complaints to March 31.

A Federal parliamentary inquiry in 2012 cited instances of bullying that included undue criticism, setting unreasonable deadlines, and spreading malicious rumours.

And a recent report by Drake Workwise showed more than half of its 850 respondents had witnessed bullying for a period longer than six months, while a quarter had been subjected to it themselves.

UWA Business School’s Jacquie Hutchinson said the low number of official complaints, which required a stringent burden of proof, masked on-the-ground evidence that bullying was still a major problem in Australian workplaces.

With the Productivity Commission estimating it costs Australia between

$6 billion and $36 billion every year, it was important to recognise that bullying extended beyond psychology to include organisational, employment and cultural factors.

“The best available data in Australia is the workers compensation data cited in the Productivity Commission report. However, this represents only those formal OHS complaints — it does not represent people’s exposure either as targets or bystanders that do not proceed to formal complaints, ” Dr Hutchinson said.

Serious mental and physical health problems, a loss of confidence and a drop in satisfaction could result from repeated and targeted bullying of workers. Professional and personal relationships could suffer, with a knock-on effect on productivity in teams, staff turnover and absenteeism.

Organisations that ignored a bullying problem ran the risk of developing a poor reputation and incurring direct costs via legal challenges or workers compensation claims. Whether the formal tests were met or not, employees should not let bullying behaviours continue, she said.

“Check out the behaviours with others you trust to get some perspective, ” Dr Hutchinson said. “Ideally, speak to the person who you believe is the perpetrator. This is not always possible due to their position or the individual’s lack of confidence or trepidation. Speak to your family, doctor or counsellor.”

Dr Hutchinson said many people believed it was better to leave the organisation than suffer the consequences of bullying or making a formal complaint. Some organisations offered mediation but bullying and offensive or harmful behaviour should be met with a no-tolerance policy. Those employers who ensured employee engagement was part of their success strategy would be better placed to detect bullying and protect their workforce.

Safework Australia defines workplace bullying as “repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety”.

It reports that bullies use email, text messages, chat rooms or other social media to target fellow workers, sometimes outside normal working hours. Differences of opinion and disagreements generally were not considered to be workplace bullying.

For more information, visit safeworkaustralia.gov.au.


© The West Australian

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First published in The West Australian June 7, 2014.