Human Resources, Wellbeing

Two-thirds of Australian employees experience workplace bullying: Here’s how to intervene

Priscilla Pho /

Two-thirds of Australians experience bullying, and workplaces can minimise its prevalence by addressing it as a health hazard, a new study reveals.

Researchers at the University of South Australia yesterday revealed that although only 10% of workers self-identify as victims of workplace bullying, the true number is likely much higher.

According to the data collected, two-thirds of surveyed have experienced bullying, but have either misconstrued it to be another issue or did not report it.

This places Australia as the sixth-highest offender for workplace bullying, compared to the 31 European countries studied.

Workplace bullying should be seen as “symptoms of the underlying disease” of wider cultural and system issues within organisations, lead researcher Michelle Tuckey tells SmartCompany.

“Bullying plays out during interactions between people, but it’s actually coming from the way work is designed and organised,” she says.

“So, it’s the way people and tasks are coordinated together that allows bullying to flourish or not.”

Manage risks

Tuckey identifies 10 factors for bullying cultures to develop, including working hours, how entitlements are coordinated, performance management, clear roles and allocated tasks and workloads, sufficient training, career opportunities, how performance is monitored and appraised, and how the environment and relationships are developed in the office. She also notes the culture around mental health plays a part too.

Each of these areas, she suggests, should be put under review to find problem areas.

Co-chief and founder of Work180 Valeria Ignatieva says, in her experience, open communication is a powerful tool in preventing and addressing workplace bullying.

“With any business, you need to have that openness of communication and feedback culture so that team members can provide feedback not only to their managers but also to each other.

“I think, as well, when you’re building diverse teams, there are lots of nuances you may need to overcome.

“There may be cultural differences, there may be people of different ages, different backgrounds. They’ll all bring different perspectives. It’s not groupthink.

“You might get some friction, which is really good for innovation,” she says.

Ignatieva advises managers and teams to make use of one-on-one catch-ups to elicit honest feedback.

For remote teams, she suggests creating these opportunities, such as with state lunches, common workspaces, and using platforms such as email and Slack to touch base.

Tuckey agrees, saying “build a culture where people can call out certain behaviour and shift that behaviour”.

Look beyond behaviour

When dealing with any bullying in the workplace, Tuckey urges businesses to consider events as indicators of larger issues, rather than as individual cases.

Addressing team dynamics and how work is designed can yield more long-term results, she explains.

“Because it’s seen as a pattern of behaviour between individuals, it’s very easy to just focus on the behaviour, but the focus needs to shift to the underlying ways the work is organised if bullying is going to be prevented.”

Ignatieva also says looking for the common thread within one-on-one feedback sessions can give businesses insight into which areas need change the most.

Bullying is a hazard and safety issue

Tuckey says bullying can be addressed simply by reframing it to be a safety issue instead of a set of interpersonal problems.

By integrating the same standards and processes used for workplace health and safety measures to the 10 risk areas outlined, businesses can minimise risk and promote a healthier environment, she says.

“Like how other safety hazards are managed, and indeed how other risks are managed in organisations small and large, we can do the same with bullying.

“Identify the nature and level of risks, then put in place steps to manage and control those risks.

“Review where the risks are coming from and actually put in place some solutions.

“And then the solutions should be monitored and evaluated to see if they’re working.”

Both Tuckey and Ignatieva highlight the importance of incorporating input from staff members at each step of the process.

Tuckey also recommends organisations set out clear policies and raise awareness of what bullying might look like in their situation.

“Deal with the pockets of ill-health where your organisation is working and you’ll get less bullying, less stress, and happier and more productive workers.”

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Priscilla Pho

Priscilla is a reporter at SmartCompany. You can contact her at [email protected].