Most workplaces have policies to combat bullying, but what can HR do to protect the psychological safety of the victims?
Almost one in ten Australian workers experience bullying in the workplace, and its effects can be devastating.
Bullying can lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD symptoms and other psychological challenges. According to the workplace mental health resource website Heads Up, it can end up costing Australian organisations between $6 and $36 billion each year.
Many employers have established policies or procedures to prevent bullying, or to investigate it when it happens, but some are less aware of the long-term impacts that bullying can have, and how to support employees who’ve experienced it.
Dan Auerbach, director and organisational psychology consultant with EmployeeAssistance.com.au, says there are ways HR can assist the individual to help them overcome the experience of bullying, but warns the employee may need some time and support to return to their previous level of functioning.
“An expectation we might have for these employees is for them to get back to working how they used to be. But to get them back to their previous level of function we are often going to have to offer them psychological support and some adjustments to their duties in order to help them cope,” he says.
“We really need to look at what we can do now to restore their sense of safety and confidence in the workplace.”
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Create an action plan
When an allegation of bullying is made, the first step is usually to investigate the claim. Alongside this, corporate psychologist and co-founder of Compono Rudy Crous says, employers should develop an action plan outlining how they plan to protect the employee who’s made the claim moving forward.
An action plan will need to be tailored to the individual and their situation, but there are some key aspects that could be included to assist an employee that has experienced bullying, says Crous.
Firstly, it should clearly outline the level of interaction between the employee and the perpetrator of the bullying – if there needs to be any at all. For example, if the bully is the employee’s manager, you need to have a clear plan in place to change that reporting line.
“Conversely, it might mean removing someone from the employee’s team. Remember subordinates can be bullies too,” adds Auerbach.
The plan should also consider the employee’s team dynamic. If the perpetrator was close with co-workers in the employee’s team then HR would need to consider whether there needs to be a team reshuffle to separate the victim from the perpetrator and their friends.
Secondly, include regular check ins with the employee in your plan. These conversations could cover general work topics and performance challenges that may have arisen as a result of the bullying, but they should also consider the employee’s emotional wellbeing.
“You should be checking in on their mental health and making sure they’re not isolated,” says Crous.
Lastly, it should outline the support systems offered to the employee. These could be external third parties, such as an employee assistance program or other counselling services, to allow the employee to properly process the situation with the help of a professional.
Additionally, the employee might wish to choose a co-worker who’s willing to act as a support person when required.
“It might be someone in the office that the person feels comfortable with,” says Auerbach. “But it could also be someone from outside who they can call to go for a coffee, or offer emotional support when needed.
“Sometimes it’s better if they’re not someone from the office, because that can complicate things if that support person has a relationship with the perpetrator.”
Like anyone who has been through a traumatic experience, explaining what makes them uncomfortable can be very difficult for employees who’ve experienced bullying.
Auerbach says if HR thoroughly understands the forms bullying can take then they can better help identify triggers and adjustments the person may need.
“Bullying can look like overt tactics, like nicknames or ongoing discrimination. But it can also be more subtle, like keeping information or tools from that person that stops them from doing their job correctly,” he says.
Auerbach notes that triggers will be different for each person, and aren’t always obvious to others.
“They might see someone walk towards them in the hallway and start to feel distressed, even though they’ve been fine the rest of the time,” he says.
“That’s when you need to monitor for these acute stress responses like panicking or faster breathing.
“If the employee doesn’t have the skills in that instance to calm themselves, then perhaps it’s a case of going for a walk or grabbing a coffee,” says Auerbach. “This is a situation where a support person should be present. Of course, professional counselling should also be offered and encouraged”
Examine the wider impacts
If there is a bully in your workplace, it’s possible they have more than one victim.
“You might need to do a climate survey to gauge the full extent of the bullying,” says Auerbach. “Ensure employees that it will be anonymous and the results will be aggregated so nobody will be individually identified.”
This survey could take a couple of forms. It could be gathered through a traditional pulse survey. Or, for a more in-depth look, workplaces could consider using the Leymann Inventory of Psychological Terror (LIPT).
Developed in 1990, the LIPT asks employees to rate how often they experience certain forms of bullying in the workplace. The LIPT narrows bullying down to five categories, attacking another’s: self-expression, social relationships, reputation, occupation or physical health. If employees note they’ve experienced one or more of these types of bullying regularly over 12 months, then a further investigation is likely needed.
However you approach the situation, it should be victim-focused. Unless the investigation proves otherwise, believe them and allow them the flexibility to deal with the experience in a way that is safest for them.
“The goal isn’t necessarily to reintegrate them with the bully,” says Auerbach.
“Down the road, they might feel ready to go into mediation or something like that with the person, but that’s really long term thinking.”