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Workplace Bullying

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Workplace bullying costs businesses billions

bullying stress

The financial cost of bullying to Australian business is between $6 and $13 billion per year, including decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, staff turnover and poor morale.

WORKPLACE bullying is rife, and can cost businesses billions each year. So what can you do about it?

Workplace bullying can have catastrophic consequences. Christine Hodder lodged two formal complaints, about bullying, harassment and victimisation by officers at Cowra Ambulance Station, where she was the first female staff member in 1999. The first complaint was in 2001 and the second was a few months before she committed suicide in April 2005, at the age of 38. “In the past six years I have been badly treated as other staff members collectively bullied, belittled and intimidated me,” she said in the complaint. “The staff in this station has constantly alienated and attacked my character and physical appearance since my arrival.” A subsequent NSW State Parliament inquiry into the Ambulance Service found that bullying and harassment existed within the service. Hodder’s husband, Jason, said at the time, “People need to be supported. You can’t just say, ‘Put up or shut up’.”

Bullying “rife”

It appears that bullying behaviour is rife in Australian workplaces. A survey of 800 employees by Drake International found that half of the respondents had witnessed bullying and 25 percent had been bullied. Frightening statistics indeed, but there is a difference between bullying behaviour and harassment, says Dr Annie Wyatt, a senior lecturer and occupational health and safety consultant at the University of New South Wales.

“Harassment can be a single instance of offensive behaviour which usually involves race, age, sex or other criteria that come under anti-discrimination legislation,” she says. “Bullying is a pattern of unreasonable behaviour and is defined as a workplace hazard. Often, there is no proof and no witnesses, and even if work colleagues know what is going on, they tend not to speak up.” Workplace bullying can cause several problems, including anxiety disorders, stress, depression and insomnia.

“Workplace bullying involves the repetitive, prolonged abuse of power,” says Evelyn Field, a clinical psychologist and author of Bully Blocking (Finch). “That is, unreasonable, escalating behaviours aggressively directed at one or more workers and causing humiliation, offence, intimidation and distress.”

Just like the schoolyard bully, the most obvious and easiest-to-detect bullying behaviour involves swearing, taunting, put-downs and even physical abuse, but more common is an insidious form of subtle intimidation: silences when the target of the bully walks into the room, bitchy comments in front of other colleagues, the spreading of malicious gossip to co-workers, not being invited to crucial meetings, rolling of eyeballs when the target speaks, being stripped of critical duties and constantly set up to fail, and being excluded from social events.

Everyone is at risk

According to Ms Field, workplace bullying can affect anyone, in any career, at any level, within any organisation, at any time. “Workplace bullying cuts across all professions, can be perpetrated by both genders and happens between management, employees and co-workers. There are also cases of bullying going upwards – employees bullying their managers.”

Research indicates that while it is usually men who do the bullying, as they are more often in management positions, there is evidence that women use bullying behaviours too. “While male bullies harass men and women, women appear to prefer to choose other women as targets,” says Ms Field. There are two main types of bullies: those with an anti-social personality disorder, and sociopaths, who take pleasure in hurting people.

The rest are normal people, who would generally be horrified when it is pointed out that they are exhibiting bullying-type behaviours. “Most bullies are not aware that what they are doing is classified as bullying. They’ll justify it by [saying] they are just getting the job done, that their colleague has brought it on themselves or it is simply a personality clash,” says Dr Wyatt.

Green-eyed monster

Dr Wyatt says there are various reasons that bullying takes place. “In difficult financial times, there is competition for resources, so people undermine others to shore up their own position.” Another theme evident in the research into workplace bullying is envy. Mostly, the targets of bullying behaviour are “successful, high-performing employees. The perpetrator envies them and seeks to undo them,” says Dr Wyatt.

This is what happened to Lynne Lomax* from Geelong, Victoria, who had started a listings magazine that was bought out by another company. “I had always been a high achiever and was confident in my ability,” she says. “However, my boss was verbally abusive and the intensity of the attacks were difficult to cope with. The more he harassed me, the more I was determined to make him see what an asset I was. I got to the point where I was working 80 hours a week, but was still being told I was useless. I had to email him when I wanted to leave my desk to go to the toilet.

The bullying had a devastating effect on me; I had a breakdown and suffered post-traumatic stress. When WorkSafe were investigating the complaint, I found that many other people had been bullied by him over the years.” “The targets of bullying are often caught by surprise,” adds Ms Field. “Over a period of time, self-doubt creeps in and they lose their confidence. It’s like a brainwashing; they can start to believe that they’re underperforming.”

Taking responsibility

In today’s corporate culture, an organisation may condone bullying as part of a tough management style, but it has serious economic consequences. According to the Workplace Bullying Project Team at Griffith University, the financial cost of bullying to business is between $6 and $13 billion per year and can include decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, staff turnover and poor morale.

“When bullying is entrenched in the culture of an organisation it is often thought of as a rite of passage, as it is the way that the perpetrator has learned to manage,” says Ms Field. But there is a clear difference between a tough boss and a bully. “A tough boss can still be fair as long as they are treating everyone equally,” says Ms Field. “Whereas bullying behaviour targets an individual as the odd one out, and a bully will mete out different treatment to the target.” There is a line between bullying behaviour and managers making unpopular decisions. “Justifying decisions that people may not like is entirely different [to bullying],” says Dr Wyatt.

The wider issue, she says, is the lack of people-management skills in the workplace. “Many people are promoted because they are good at their jobs, but they may not have the interpersonal management, listening and communication skills needed to manage their teams. Hence, they may manage in a fear-creating manner which leads to greater problems.”

When employees are valued and are working together, their organisation thrives. However, this fact can be lost on someone who aims to increase their own personal power through intimidation. So what is the best practice when a workplace bullying complaint is lodged? Field says it’s important to validate the target’s perception of the situation. “By taking their complaint seriously, the situation can be resolved. A denial makes it worse.”

“Employers need to realise this issue is important,” adds Dr Wyatt. “There need to be enforced policies, procedures and training for all staff about what constitutes acceptable behaviour. There is training available and organisations have a duty to take it up.”

* Name changed.

What to do if you are being bullied

Dr Wyatt says if you suspect that you are being targeted in the workplace, arm yourself with as much information as possible.

– Document all alleged bullying behaviour.
– Determine whether you can deal with the situation yourself by informing the person who is bullying you that it is unacceptable. It may be valuable to have a witness present.
– Find out who in your organisation is the most appropriate person to discuss your concerns with.
– Engage in a discussion with your employer. This can be difficult, but it is the action most likely to stop the bullying.
– If you feel you need to see a psychologist, your GP can organise a referral.
– Talk to your occupational health authority, union or a lawyer.

For more information on bullying, visit www.bullying.com.au