Australia is home to some of the worst workplace bullying in the developed world, ranking sixth highest in a recent study comparing us with 31 European countries.
Around 10 per cent of Australian employees admit to being bullied at work, but that figure may hide the true extent of the problem, with much antisocial workplace behaviour going unreported and research suggesting up to two-thirds of workers may experience unfair treatment on the job.
While laws to discourage workplace bullying have been strengthened in recent years, employment experts acknowledge other protective measures are sorely needed.
Researchers at the University of South Australia have developed a novel diagnostic and response solution to address that need, providing a simple, evidence-based approach to recognising and addressing bullying issues in Australian workplaces.
Lead researcher, Associate Professor Michelle Tuckey, says the key to curbing workplace bullying lies in understanding such behaviour can rarely be blamed on isolated individuals.
“Workplace bullying is often mistaken as a problem between staff members, an interpersonal problem, when evidence shows it’s really a reflection of how the organisation functions,” Assoc Prof Tuckey says.
“It’s a cultural issue, a systems issue – if you have a healthy culture and healthy systems, then you don’t get a lot of bullying, but if you don’t have that culture and those systems, bullying is more common.”
Building on six years of research, Assoc Prof Tuckey and her team have devised a method to help businesses develop the sort of cultures that prevent bullying at work.
“We’re taking a safety risk management framework and treating bullying as a work health and safety hazard, following the normal risk management approach, which is to identify hazards, assess the level of risk, implement risk controls, and then monitor and evaluate,” Assoc Prof Tuckey says. “An important feature of our approach is the involvement of staff and managers in each stage.”
The risk management solution was developed through extensive engagement with 342 documented bullying complaints lodged with SafeWork SA and is currently being trialled with peak health and safety bodies to enhance the regulatory response to bullying and to support proactive risk management in a range of other organisations.
“We analysed about 5500 pages of information to learn what’s going on in the culture and the work systems when people feel mistreated,” Assoc Prof Tuckey says. “Then we turned that into a survey-based measurement tool with 10 different domains used to deliver a score predictive of a broad range of work health and safety outcomes, including exposure to bullying.
“The tool provides diagnostic information regarding where the risk of bullying lies in how people and tasks are coordinated in workplaces. The next step is to design risk control strategies to reduce the risks identified by the tool, with input from employees, managers, and other stakeholders.
“The strategies should be implemented, monitored, and evaluated to gauge their effectiveness. My team at the university guides organisations through this risk management process.”
With the total cost of bullying at work in Australia estimated to be up to $36 billion per annum, benefits of preventing the behaviour are institutional as well as individual.
“The diagnostic tool shows an organisation where they should focus their efforts and prioritise their resources,” Assoc Prof Tuckey says. “Many organisations already have policies, training and complaint systems in place; our tool complements those structures to prevent bullying behaviour.”