More common in the workplace than in the schoolyard, bullying not only harms those on the receiving end, it’s bad for business. By Emma Williams
Bullying is generally associated with the schoolyard. However, it is a very real and “adult” problem affecting many workplaces throughout Australia.
Psychologist and expert on workplace bullying, Evelyn Field, says bullying among adults is far more common than people realise. Often it’s found in subtle forms.
“We look at one in five kids being bullied at school, but it’s more at work,” Field says. “I’d say one in three adults is affected by workplace bullying in Australia, but it can be up to 90-95 per cent in some industries like nursing or teaching.”
Researchers at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business looked at the impact workplace ostracism has on employee health and found workplace exclusion was more harmful than more obvious types of bullying. The research found many employees thought ostracism to be socially acceptable, less psychologically harmful, and less likely to be prohibited than harassment.
Despite this perception, Field says people subjected to any kind of bullying may be affected by headaches, stomach pains, high blood pressure, weight gain, sleep problems, memory issues, depression, anxiety and/or panic attacks.
“Their personal life is affected. Those who are really injured say they’re a different person. A third of people seriously traumatised by bullying never work again.”
In 2008, apprentice Alec Meikle committed suicide after relentless bullying. In the NSW Coroner’s Court, it was alleged the 17-year-old was burnt with a welding torch, set on fire and told he would be raped if he made too many mistakes.
Alec’s direct supervisor was alleged to have been a main perpetrator of the bullying. Another co-worker admitted spraying Meikle with flammable liquid while he was welding, knowing it would catch alight, but said it was a joke.
Bullies don’t affect only the victim; they also cost companies and the community. A 2012 report by the House of Representatives’ Standing Committee on Education and Employment (“Workplace Bullying: We just want it to stop”) found workplace bullying costs the Australian economy up to $36 billion a year. A workplace bullying case costs employers an average $17,000 to $24,000 per claim.
Field says organisations need to regard bullying as the canary in the coal mine: a sign there are major problems. Key indicators can be low productivity, low employee motivation, mistakes, absenteeism and high turnover of staff.
Ultimately, “bullying is a result of poor management and your bottom line is going to suffer. When people get bullied, they’re not doing what they’re paid to do and nor are the bullies or bystanders.
“If you work in an organisation where you are valued and respected, you try harder because you feel good and part of the team. If you’re not valued, you won’t perform at your best or put in extra.
“If there is a naughty child, you look to their parents. At work, whether they are a bully, target, or both, look at the manager. If the manager isn’t communicating with staff and able to see these issues, then what else is the manager not doing?”
Field says bullies are usually “politically clever” and know how to win favour with those above them while making those below them seem less credible. She finds women in particular often fall victim to a “boys’ club” mentality, when men stand up for their male colleagues who have been accused of bullying, and cites the disparity of high numbers of female law graduates with low numbers of women practising law as just one example of this.
“That’s a huge cost to the community, when we train people and they can’t work,” Field says. Yet a University of Buffalo School of Management study found workplace bullies were often rewarded and promoted above colleagues with less dominant behaviours.
Bullying behaviour can involve spreading rumours about a person’s work or capabilities, which can be difficult to defend when the victim doesn’t know what has been said. Field advises bullying victims to see a psychologist, who can teach them ways of dealing with the perpetrator or perpetrators.
She also encourages clients to note interactions in a diary or confirm what was said via email. Field doesn’t like the phrase “stamping out bullying”. Instead, she advises the best way to deal with bullying is a collaborative, not adversarial, approach. It is not about proof an employee was bullied; it’s about how they feel about it.
She suggests too many companies are succumbing to hour-long “tick and flick” training, which involves watching a DVD or completing a brief induction, so the company can report that everyone has received training. “Good training is crucial and I don’t think anywhere in Australia is doing it yet,” Field says.
Chair of the National Centre Against Bullying and former chief justice of the Family Court of Australia Alastair Nicholson says the new Fair Work Act amendments (since January this year) apply serious financial penalties.
Under current legislation, employees can complain about bullying to the Fair Work Commission, which it is obliged to act upon within 14 days. If the Fair Work Commission finds bullying has occurred, an organisation will be expected to comply with any orders to prevent the worker from further bullying. Failure to comply could penalise the organisation a maximum $51,000 for each offence. Employees, managers and directors found to be breaching the orders could also be penalised individually.
In Victoria, bullies face more severe consequences. In 2011, the state introduced Brodie’s Law after the 2006 suicide of a young woman, Brodie Panlock, who was subjected to relentless bullying by co-workers. Brodie’s Law makes workplace and cyber bullying a criminal offence by extending the application of the stalking provisions in the Crimes Act 1958. Stalking, and therefore conduct that amounts to serious bullying, carries a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment.
“I don’t think sufficient workplaces are conscious of the problem,” Nicholson says. “Many would have workplace bullying policies, but the problem with policies is they aren’t much good if they’re put in a drawer. “They need to be well done and acted on. There needs to be a lot more work from businesses in this area, otherwise it is going to cost them a lot of money.”