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1 in 3 Australian workplaces prone to bullying and harassment – with peers among the major perpetrators

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A new survey by a workplace safety auditing and training organisation has revealed that bullying and harassment is occurring in nearly 1 in 3 organisations (30 per cent). The findings are released at a time when nearly 91 per cent of all mental health claims pertain to work-related mental stress.

 The survey was conducted by workplace safety training organisation SAI Global, which has audited and trained thousands of organisations seeking to meet international standards for workplace health and safety, in addition to the relevant Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) Act. Of the 1008 Australian adults surveyed, SAI Global sought to uncover whether they see bullying and harassment in their workplaces.

When asked where they have seen the behaviour, 32 per cent of respondents said that it has come from managers, 29 per cent said they have witnessed the behaviour in peers, 6 per cent have even seen it come from external service providers, and 5 per cent said contractors have displayed the behaviour.

ACT workplaces see more bullying and harassment than in other states

It seems the ACT has more cases of bullying and harassment than the other states: the survey reveals that 40 per cent of ACT respondents see this behaviour in their workplaces commonly, compared with just 32 per cent of Victorian respondents, 29 per cent of NSW respondents, and an equal 28 per cent of Queensland and South Australian respondents.

Rod Beath, workplace safety spokesperson at SAI Global, says, “Bullying and harassment encompasses much more than behaviour that is outwardly aggressive, sexually explicit or humiliating towards others. The behaviour can manifest in physical, verbal, social or psychological forms, and this is why it is so difficult to identify.”

“It can even include comments or behaviours that are hurtful or make a person feel undervalued. Very shrewd managers or co-workers can deliberately intimidate employees to make them feel less important or undervalued, or make their jobs extremely difficult by, for instance, giving them impossible tasks or workloads.”

“While awareness around these issues is growing – especially with recent studies that have identified poor mental health as a major concern in Australian workplaces – there is still a need for better education and awareness among organisations,” he continues.

Rod encourages employers to ensure their workplaces meet health and safety legislation and standards and provide ongoing education for their employees. “When an organisation’s workplace is certified to the ISO 45001 international standard for occupational health and safety, for instance, they are committed to eliminating risks of injury and illness – which can include mental health risks – as well as other important safety requirements. The 45001 standard requires organisations to consider any adverse impacts to their employees’ physical and mental health – and bullying and harassment is a part of this.”

SAI Global reveals its seven tips for how employers can eliminate bullying and harassment from their workplaces:

 1. Train managers to identify and call out bullying behaviours early.

Some people might not even be aware that their behaviour is affecting the broader workplace culture. In these circumstances, it is useful to have a conversation with employees about their behaviour and its impact on colleagues. While this might seem like a sensitive and difficult conversation, it will promote awareness and teach individuals to recognise bullying tendencies and act on them early.

2. Follow your company’s policy and processes when standards of expected behaviours are not met.

Every company should develop and implement a clear and succinct workplace bullying policy to help address any bullying that occurs. This policy should clearly define the standards of behaviour that are expected, and your responsibilities as an employer about how bullying will be dealt with. Whether this is a code of conduct or workplace bullying policy, it is important that these standards are continually reviewed and updated.  

3. Have regular consultations with your employees.

Every employer should try to be trustworthy and approachable, while providing respectful performance feedback to their employees. By regularly consulting with employees, it will also help them to better identify and assess if bullying is occurring in their workplace. Holding open dialogues with employees can also draw attention to potential factors that are likely to increase the risk of workplace bullying.

4. Design systems that allow employees to carry out their work safely.

By clearly defining jobs and incorporating workplace bullying into risk management approaches, it will help ensure that your workers are carrying out their work safely. These systems should also ensure that management (particularly lower levels of management) are adequately trained and supported to address workplace bullying. For instance, providing them with resources, information and training, will help them to feel empowered to address the issues at hand.

5. Manage workplace stressors.

Role conflict and uncertainty may cause bullying behaviours due to the stress it places on employees. Ensure employees understand their roles and have the skills to do their job to minimise work circumstances that could lead to bullying. This will also help to minimise the risk of employees’ perceiving different opinions or management actions as bullying.

6. Promote productive, respectful working relationships through good management practices.

As your leadership sets the tone for how employees are expected to treat each other, it is important to identify and model the behaviours that you need in your team. By treating everyone with dignity and respect, it will help to create a cohesive workplace culture where bullying is not tolerated.

7. Prioritise the psychological health of your employees.

It is important to promote a positive and psychologically healthy workplace, beyond merely the absence of bullying. Encouraging staff to work on tasks together, matching employee skills and strengths with tasks, and providing employees with sufficient information to perform tasks competently are just a few ways to help them balance mental workplace demands. Offering your employees flexible working arrangements also enables them to take care of their psychological health in the workplace.

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