Fact: Bullying in the workplace happens. Some people never grow out of an adolescent need to push people around.
There are many reasons people bully: low self-esteem, the need for empowerment, just plain meanness.
According to WorkSafe Victoria, stress, often the result of workplace bullying, is the second most common cause of workplace compensation claims in Australia, after manual handling. It costs employers billions of dollars annually in workplace productivity and absenteeism.
According to The Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, as much as 60 per cent of absenteeism can be attributed to stress-related illness. So why, with so many fiscal reasons for workplaces to prevent it, does bullying in the workplace still occur?
“At the end of the day, bullying is about poor management,” says psychologist and bullying expert Evelyn Field. “People might bully one another, but it’s up to the manager to intervene and say this behaviour is not acceptable.”
The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, which was set up to prevent violence against children, has a vision to take its eSmart initiative – a system set up to help schools reduce bullying and cyberbullying – from the schoolyard into libraries, workplaces and homes.
At the end of the day, bullying is about poor management.– Evelyn Field
“What we’re looking for in eSmart is guiding organisations so they have the right policies and procedures, and working to engage managers and staff at all levels,” says CEO Judith Slocombe. “We then need to make sure they use experts to put in place some concrete methods for dealing with bullying.”
“People will be people,” Field says. “People have different perceptions of what happens and sometimes people are really nasty and aggressive and mean and horrific and abusive, and sometimes they’re just protecting their territory. Other times, they don’t mean to be nasty. But it’s up to the manager to say, ‘Look, I need you to all work together as a team. What can we do to intervene and make sure that everyone feels respected and safe?’”
While organisational culture is important when it comes to occupational bullying, individuals can still take measures to protect themselves. “You don’t want people to have that victim mentality,” Slocombe says. “You want to empower them. They’ve been targeted through no fault of their own.”
While removing a bully may go some way to prevent bullying, an individual’s own self-perception can assist in handling difficult situations. Field suggests that dealing with bullies comes down to self-awareness and people skills.
“To develop resilience you need to know how you’re feeling,” she says. “You need to know how to communicate with people and you need to know how to block difficult people.” Field talks of building an imaginary wall to shield yourself from such people.
At the end of the day, stress, bullying and victimisation are all health issues. According to the World Health Organization, “Many stressful experiences are linked to being offended – for instance, by being offended or ridiculed, by social exclusion, by social conflict, by illegitimate tasks. Such experiences of being treated in an unfair manner constitute an ‘Offence to Self’, and this may have quite far-reaching consequences in terms of health and well-being.”
What is bullying?
According to Field, bullying is usually a pattern of behaviour over a period of time. However, she says, there are instances where one occasion, such as yelling at a colleague in an open office, can constitute bullying, since that one instance can have long-lasting repercussions. Examples of bullying include:
• Cyberbullying – attacking people via social media and other internet channels
• Exclusion – for example, not forwarding important information to a colleague
• Discrimination – attacking people because of their race, gender, sexuality or religion
• Aggression – verbally and physically attacking someone in an offensive manner
Are you being bullied?
If you’re being bullied in the workplace, make sure you report it. And if you can’t report it to your manager, Field suggests you consider leaving your current workplace.
“If you can’t say to your manager, ‘I’m feeling distressed, I’m feeling upset,’ why work hard for an organisation like that?”
For those not ready to up and leave their day jobs, consider speaking to your union, lawyer, psychologist and/or your GP. It’s your health at risk.