Will workplace bullying lead you to the court room?

Workplace stress is now being recognised as a growing problem in today’s workplaces with it coming in as the second most compensated illness or injury. Workplace bullying is now considered a major problem in many industries with recent attention given to the way in which legislation and guidelines address this issue.

The WHS Act provides a framework to protect the health, safety and welfare of people. The term health includes both psychological health as well as physical health. As bullying can affect both the mental and physical condition of a person it is therefore considered a risk that organisations must address under the law.

Workplace bullying is seen as a frequent occurrence that is generally long term in nature and intensifies as time goes on intending to make the victim feel powerless, intimidated or humiliated. While a key in defining workplace bullying is “repeated” behaviour, single events have significant potential to escalate into workplace bullying. Increasing competition, push for more efficiencies and downsizing create toxic environments where workplace bullying can thrive.

Safety Australia Group’s Managing Director, Robert Keft says “Currently workplace bullying seems to be entrenched in the organisational culture of many workplaces with instances being written off as ’management’s style’ or ’that’s just what we do around here’. People must understand that maintaining the status quo is no longer acceptable and much more needs to be done to turn around dysfunctional cultures in which workplace bullying thrives”.

The Harsh Reality of Workplace Bullying

  • It is estimated that the annual cost of workplace bullying in Australia ranges between $6 and $36 billion every year.
  • Workplace bullying is prevalent in between 3.5 per cent and 21 per cent of Australian workers.
  • Being subjected to workplace bullying doubles the risk of having suicidal thoughts.
  • Mental stress can play a leading role in developing musculoskeletal disorders.

Turning Relationships Around

Like other workplace hazards, workplace bullying is best managed by responding as early as possible. The longer the bullying behaviour continues, the more difficult it is to address and the harder it becomes to repair working relationships. Managers and supervisors should be trained in how to respond to incidents appropriately and teach them the skills to develop productive and respectful workplace relationships. Managing workplace bullying is a complex issue that presents many challenges for an organisation so the key lies within a consistent and clear process to prevent bullying from occurring and to respond to any allegations that may arise. Some factors to consider are:

  • How to identify bullying risk factors.
  • An early intervention process to resolve issues before they become severe and avoid the risk of ongoing workplace bullying taking place.
  • Fostering an organisational culture that is supportive and committed to prevention this should be documented in an organisations code of conduct, policies and procedures.
  • Encouraging open communication and consultation with workers and encourage them to contribute to work health and safety management.
  • Providing training and information.
  • Establish an effective complaint handling process and support system.

Behind Closed Doors

The Safety Australia Group is approaching this very complex issue from a different angle by running a workplace bullying mock trial for senior safety leaders. “This is a unique opportunity to gain insight from both sides of the legal battle” says Mr Keft. The case will be facilitated by a former State Prosecutor and defence lawyer and will explore a wrongful dismissal claim brought in the Federal Court.

A mock trial is a simulated court case that offers a “real life” element to training. Mock trials are a great way to engage an audience and challenge their thinking through:

  • identifying potential risks including gaps in systems and processes; 
  • reflecting on cultural vulnerabilities; 
  • highlighting opportunities for continuous improvement; and 
  • showcasing how laws are practically interpreted and the effect this can have on your organisation.

Safety Australia Group is also currently running Workplace Bullying Awareness Training for organisations.