Why is workplace bullying so widespread and rising?

workplace bullying
Amanda Woodard


written on August 28, 2017

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.

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.

High pressure, low control

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, 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.

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.”

Courage and initiative

Employers have duty-of-care responsibilities to protect their employees from workplace discrimination, harassment and bullying – 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

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.

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.

This article was originally published on UNSW’s Business School’s website.

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3 thoughts on “Why is workplace bullying so widespread and rising?

  1. Do we ever have access to the surveys of million of workers so that we can verify these contentions?
    One entities efforts seem to be extrapolated extensively.
    The issues raised are serious but how do the stated results for a verified basis get qualified.
    Hard to plan properly without sound numbers

  2. It’s important to remember that for some individuals, poorly developed and inappropriate interpersonal skills underpin their bullying behaviour. Sadly, not everyone learns effective ways of relating to others during childhood, especially where they are repeatedly exposed to violent and dysfunctional role models at home. Children learn what is ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ behaviour at home and at school. If what they learn in those years is that bullying and coercive behaviour are a way of managing relationships, then we should expect that they will take this with them into the workforce.
    I’m not suggesting that all workplace bullying has this origin – some is more deliberate and is freely under the control of the individual. But the point is that for some people, all the policy guidelines we write will not solve their problem. When dealing with bullying at work, we need to seek ways to offer support, in the form of learning more appropriate ways of conducting relationships, to those who engage in bullying. Then, one person at a time, we will lower the rate of bullying and increase the social competence of those in the workforce whose life circumstances have ill-prepared them for mature adult relationships in the workplace.

  3. The data for this topic is contestable, and there are significant inconsistencies in the Safe Work Australia survey. Respondents were given two definitions of workplace bullying and asked to self-assess whether they had been bullied. This yielded the high numbers cited in this article. But when the respondents were asked more precise questions about how often they experienced specific behaviours, such as being sworn at or yelled at, the numbers are much lower. These lower numbers never make it into articles like this one.
    Many workers don’t understand the distinction between bullying and reasonable behaviour. Many managers are the same. Every workplace has friction and disagreement, but it isn’t always bullying.
    The issue of inappropriate workplace behaviour needs attention, and I agree with the need for better organisational controls, but not every problem is solved with a policy. Preventing and responding to bad behaviour requires every worker and every manager to know their responsibilities, and to exercise them. That is a hard challenge, and the lazy citation of alarming statistics doesn’t help anyone.

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