Why is workplace bullying so widespread and rising?

Pressure, disorganisation and regulatory failure are red flags

What happened to the image of Australians as easy-going, laid-back people? From the schoolyard to the home to the workplace, bullying has become a serious problem.

The Productivity Commission estimates that workplace bullying costs the Australian economy between $6 billion and $36 billion every year. The estimate’s broad range reflects the absence of reliable, concentrated data – but even the lower figure is alarming. 

Untreated psychological and physical health problems related to bullying lead to absenteeism, presenteeism (where employees go to work but are not productive) and workers’ compensation claims.

This is not unique to Australia, of course, but the most recent available data from the annual Australian Workplace Barometer (AWB) project shows that Australia has the sixth-highest rate of workplace bullying when compared with 34 European countries.

Globally, rapid changes taking place in work patterns, such as the growth of zero-hour contracts and the so-called gig economy are adding to job insecurity.

Increased competition, between countries and businesses, has also ramped up job demands coupled with stagnant wage growth. All of which, evidence suggests, leads to more bullying and harassment.

During their working lives, almost 50% of all Australians will experience bullying in some form, according to mental health charity, beyondblue. Between 2011 and 2015, the national average rate of workplace bullying increased 40%, according to Safe Work Australia (SWA).

Digging deeper, we find that what is known about bullying may only be the tip of a large iceberg. SWA research garnered from 4200 respondents shows that self-reported bullying and harassment occurred in 10% of cases and of those who reported bullying, approximately 32.6% were bullied at least once a week. It is widely believed that most incidents go unreported.

The health impact of bullying is serious – and not just for those who experience it directly, but also for those who witness it.

'If you create more inequality in work arrangements, the temptation to abuse power becomes greater and greater'


High pressure, low control

While bullying has no boundaries – occurring in public and private organisations, both large and small – to understand the dynamics at work that lead to bullying behaviours, it is helpful to narrow the focus to a particular sector.

This is what Michael Quinlan, a professor in the school of management at UNSW Business School, and academic colleagues at University of Sydney led by associate professor Angela Knox, did when they collaborated on a pilot study of the hospitality industry.

To date, there has been very little research on the underlying causes of bullying apart from gender, says Quinlan, director of the Industrial Relations Research Centre at UNSW Business School.

The research team’s approach was to use a framework that looks at the impact of pressure, disorganisation and regulatory failure, which has previously been helpful at explaining mental health outcomes in other contexts.

The background to their paper points to evidence indicating that the environment in which hospitality workers operate is negatively impacted by high pressure and low control. Employees experience ongoing work intensification; long, antisocial, irregular or unpredictable working hours; insecure wages and employment; and inadequate training.

The prevalence of poor work organisation and bullying within the hospitality industry has been linked to endemic labour turnover that plagues the industry.

An admittedly small sample of hotel employees, mostly cleaners, were surveyed. Many were migrant workers who are often vulnerable anyway, due to resident status and being in precarious contractual or insecure jobs.

“Even if they know their rights, that can be useless if you have no capacity to access your rights,” says Quinlan.

The shift in recent times to the casualisation of the workforce and the [return to] more insecure forms of employment that existed before World War II, actually encourages bullying, argues Quinlan.

“If you create more inequality in work arrangements, the temptation to abuse power becomes greater and greater. Notwithstanding that you have systems in place to address these issues, you will still get tragic cases such as the teenage waitress who killed herself in Victoria after relentless bullying by co-workers.”

Casual workers and young people who are desperate for a job are under pressure to put up and shut up, he says.

'Usually the case depends on verbal evidence and other workers are reluctant to corroborate complaints as they fear victimisation if they do'


Courage and initiative

Employers have duty-of-care responsibilities to protect their employees from workplace discrimination, harassment and bullying – set out in federal and state anti-discrimination laws, as well as in the Fair Work Act, 2009. Taken together, they make certain types of workplace behaviour against the law.

However, the onus is on the bullied employee to take up a case themselves. It can seem a mountain to climb and instead, many choose simply to quit.

“Employees can take action but that is very individualised and requires courage and initiative,” says Quinlan. More often than not, bullying won’t be reported and the victim will just leave. “It doesn’t just damage those involved either, it damages those who witness bullying, too.”

In cases where the (Fair Work) inspectors are called in to investigate, they encounter other problems, explains Quinlan.

“By the time the inspectors arrive, the situation has often deteriorated to a point where there is not going to be a good outcome – particularly in small workplaces. The worker is in a very vulnerable position, as are their colleagues.

“Usually the case depends on verbal evidence and other workers are reluctant to corroborate complaints as they fear victimisation if they do. The regulatory regime finds it hard to deal with these issues,” Quinlan says.

Policies and practices

Many believe there also needs to be a shift in thinking towards a collective responsibility. Georgie Harman, CEO at beyondblue, thinks it is because anti-bullying policies and strategies approach the problem as being about individuals – the perpetrator and the victim – rather than looking at the organisational structure and culture that allows the bullying to occur.

“Bullying is usually blamed on individuals, or interpersonal problems, or ‘personality clashes’. This is too simplistic. Bullying occurs because of cultural, organisational and structural issues in the workplace,” says Harman.

The Psychosocial Safety Climate and Better Productivity in Australian Workplaces Report from 2016 says that organisations attempt to lift productivity through negative means, by increasing pressure on their workforce, by reducing job control and limiting available job rewards.

In its view, these methods are counterproductive and their outcomes are outweighed by the physical and psychological health problems associated with such demands.

The researchers findings suggest that bullying may be diminished by a greater (and possibly more formalised) focus on regulatory compliance, particularly the development of policies and practices that meet statutory requirements concerning labour standards, and the monitoring and enforcement of OHS.

Quinlan believes that what is needed is “to change the basic architecture of work with more secure jobs, stronger regulatory protection of labour standards and greater union influence at work”.

The less bargaining power you have, he says, the more precarious your position. For organisations, driving people to work harder, creating and, in some cases, encouraging cultures where competition and conflict can flourish, is a false economy.

“You are also running down your social capital. What we found is consistent with earlier research that suggests bullying is less likely in organisations with detailed, clear and transparent procedures, and who value and care for their employees by deeds not just rhetoric,” says Quinlan.


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