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Dealing with Workplace Bullying

Work provides important health benefits, including opportunities for learning, achievement and social relationships - but against this backdrop, are some concerning statistics about workplace bullying. A recent survey commissioned by beyondblue reported that almost 50% of Australians will experience some form of workplace bullying during their career.

The reasons for the widespread occurrence of bullying are not entirely understood. Increased business competition and change increase the pressure to perform. This can create conditions for a “do whatever it takes” attitude to be rewarded, which can contribute to bullying behaviour.

Bullying can occur at any level in an organisation, but it occurs most commonly in supervisory relationships. Not everyone has the interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to be a good manager. When people are promoted to managerial positions because of their technical expertise or ability to “get things done,” under stress they may behave in ways that are controlling, unpredictable or aggressive.

Bullying can be intentional or unintentional. Intentional bullying is generally motivated by personality factors such as the desire to exert control over others, whereas unintentional bullying can be due to poor interpersonal skills or stress.

Intentional bullying can involve quite subtle behaviour that occurs over a period of time. It often starts as low-intensity, isolated incidents that build in intensity over time. It is the cumulative impact of the behaviour, rather than isolated incidents, that causes harm.

As a result, workplace bullying may not be apparent to either the victim or to outsiders. This is one of the reasons why a person can experience an escalating and extended period of bullying behaviour, before realising that something is seriously wrong - often via the physical and psychological symptoms they begin to experience. These include sleep disruption, worrying, anxiety and loss of confidence, feelings of isolation, tension and headaches. If these symptoms persist, there is a heightened risk of developing chronic stress and depression, regardless of a person’s previous mental health history.

Most people don’t expect to be bullied at work and their initial response, on learning that what they have been experiencing is bullying behaviour, can be one of shock and disbelief.

So What Can be Done About Workplace Bullying?

Personal Awareness - Increased awareness can take away the surprise factor and help you take protective measures if you experience bullying.

SOME GENERAL TIPS ARE: • Familiarise yourself with your general workplace rights. The Fair Work Commission has an anti-bullying guide accessible at • Familiarise yourself with your workplace’s policies on bullying. • Seek advice If you think you might be experiencing bullying, particularly if you are experiencing physical or emotional distress. • Your GP can be a good first point of contact. Many workplaces have Employee Assistance Programmes, which provide free, confidential counselling.

Workplace Culture - There is a fundamental principle regarding a person’s right to safe and quiet enjoyment of work. Many organisations recognise this and have systems and policies to ensure a safe and healthy workplace.

However, dealing with bullying is challenging. Bullies can be good at “managing upwards” and it is easy to put relationship issues down to differences in personality. As a result, reports of bullying behaviour should be taken seriously and investigated.

Organisations can be pro-active by ensuring that checks and balances are in place, including: • Using suitable assessment procedures during the recruitment process, to screen out potential problem behaviour. • Placing priority on effective leadership behaviour and reinforcing this in the way performance is rewarded. Senior management should take an active interest in addressing bullying as an essential safety and wellbeing issue. • Providing training in bullying awareness. • Providing training in interpersonal skills, conflict management, emotional problem solving and psychological resilience • Ensuring that a grievance procedure is in place that allows for the safe reporting and investigation of bullying.

Workplace bullying is costly. It leads to lower productivity, lower staff morale, staff turnover, absenteeism and higher worker’s compensation costs. For individuals it can have a profound effect on personal well-being, disrupting work and career, and creating family stress. If you observe a colleague experiencing difficulty at work, why not ask them if they are ok and perhaps suggest they seek assistance.

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