Workplace bullying in the time of COVID-19

Principal Consultant Christa Ludlow has prepared a whitepaper titled Workplace Bullying, Evidence Based Approaches to a Complex Problem – which you can download for free.

The whitepaper draws on recent research and WEIR’s own experience in workplace investigation, workplace mediation and conflict resolution, to examine why the prevalence of bullying remains high despite attempts to reduce workplace bullying. It also looks at the multiple factors which make bullying a particularly complex workplace hazard; and what is needed in any attempt to prevent or respond to bullying at work. 

Bullying in the workplace is a recognised risk to health and safety and must be managed by organisations and employers in compliance with their statutory work health and safety duties. Evidence indicates, however, that workplace bullying is more difficult to eliminate or minimise than other workplace hazards. The prevalence of bullying in Australia appears to be increasing and the cost of bullying to Australian business has been estimated at $34.7 billion for 2018.  The national prevalence rate for workplace bullying was nearly one in 10 people (9.4 %) in 2014-15, an increase from 7% in 2009-2011. In recent years workers compensation claims for mental stress increased by 9 per cent.

Although bullying and harassment policies and awareness-raising programs have been active for a number of years, the proportion of workers who experience bullying remains high in a number of sectors. As an example, in NSW inquiries have been held into bullying in emergency services in 2011, 2014 and 2017-18 and yet while on the decline, it remains at high levels. 

Bullying is a complex problem

The standard definition of bullying is:

“Repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.

Repeated behaviour refers to the persistent nature of the behaviour and can involve a range of behaviours over time.

Unreasonable behaviour means behaviour that a reasonable person, having considered the circumstances, would see as unreasonable, including behaviour that is victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening.” (SafeWork Australia, Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying, 2016).

Reasonable management action is not bullying; but management action often leads to claims of bullying.

Bullying conduct can be influenced by a number of factors and can operate over a lengthy period of time.  Bullying conduct is not always recognised for what it is when it occurs and in some cases bullying behaviour is seen as “justifiable”, “unavoidable” or a necessary part of the organisation’s culture.

There are many different kinds of bullying. It can be obvious or subtle; it can operate upwards or downwards; it can be viewed differently in different cultures; it can take place in person or over social media or email.

WEIR has been called upon to investigate many allegations of bullying. Investigation of bullying allegations can be emotionally difficult for participants and resolving bullying by alternative means is not straightforward. There is often doubt about the appropriate response and action to take. 

Through our own research and experience in the field of workplace investigation we have identified several factors which make investigating and responding to workplace bullying a complex task and different from managing other workplace hazards.

A new approach

One developing area of organisational theory states that organisations and workplaces are themselves complex systems. This is a new way of looking at questions such as –  why do attempts to introduce change in an organisation often fail? Why do the same organisational problems, such as bullying, recur? Why is it that the solution which worked once, does not work again? Why can relatively small changes in a workplace have wide ranging or dramatic outcomes?

The paper argues that a complex systems approach can bring a new perspective to identifying, preventing and responding to bullying. This approach looks at the multiple factors which can increase the risk of bullying recognises its complex nature. We suggest that for an organisation to be able to deal successfully with the complex nature of bullying conduct, it must use a set of approaches rather than one single approach, to match the complexity of the problem.

PSC, Bullying and Covid-19

The paper also looks at what research tells us about the importance of workplace psychosocial safety climate (PSC). PSC is a specific aspect of organizational culture, defined as “policies, practices, and procedures for worker psychological health and safety”.  It measures an organisation’s priorities and commitment in relation to worker psychological health and wellbeing. Measuring, monitoring and improving your organisation’s PSC may be the most significant action you can take to prevent bullying in the workplace and is regarded as best practice. It assists with determining bullying risk levels and potential contributors.

The following actions will foster a high level PSC:

  • Developing clear organisational procedures, management practices and communication systems relating to bullying and harassment behaviours
  • Fostering a work environment in which workers feel valued, psychologically safe, and healthy
  • Consulting with workers and their representatives to modify and promote better work structures and processes, such as organisational communication and performance management
  • Improving work conditions and reduce job demands
  • Establishing policies and procedures to manage interpersonal conflict
  • Providing information on workers’ roles, responsibilities and rights, and the organisation’s role in how to deal with any workplace bullying or harassment incidents.

The changes brought about by the current Covid-19 pandemic have affected the way we work, and may make bullying even more difficult to manage. Taking action to measure, monitor and improve PSC may help prevent bullying when you cannot be there physically.  

The paper discusses two evidence-based approaches to reducing bullying at work which have been shown to increase the likelihood of success and provides a checklist to assist workplace investigators and HR practitioners analyse and respond to bullying conduct.

To find out more, download the free whitepaper.

WEIR can assist in development, tailoring and implementation of measures to assist with prevention of and responding to bullying, and acting as workplace bullying consultants. Please get in touch if you need assistance with strategy or intervention in this space.