Workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.

It is a risk to health and safety because it may affect the mental and physical health of workers. Taking steps to prevent it from occurring and responding quickly if it does is the best way to deal with workplace bullying.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.

It can occur wherever people work together and in all types of workplaces.
Examples of behaviour intentional or unintentional, that may be workplace bullying include:

  • abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments
  • aggressive and intimidating conduct
  • belittling or humiliating comments
  • practical jokes or initiation
  • unjustified criticism or complaints, or
  • deliberately excluding someone from work-related activities.

A single incident of unreasonable behaviour is not workplace bullying, however it may be repeated or escalate and so should not be ignored.

What is not workplace bullying?

Not all behaviour that makes a person feel upset or undervalued at work is workplace bullying.
Workplace bullying is not:

  • Reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way. It is reasonable for managers and supervisors to allocate work and to give fair and reasonable feedback on a worker’s performance. These actions are not considered to be workplace bullying if they are carried out lawfully and in a reasonable manner, taking the particular circumstances into account.
  • Unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment carried out in isolation. Discrimination on the basis of a protected trait in employment may be unlawful under anti-discrimination, equal employment opportunity, workplace relations and human rights laws.
  • Differences of opinion and disagreement. People can have differences and disagreements in the workplace without engaging in repeated, unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety. However, in some cases, conflict that is not managed may escalate to the point where it becomes workplace bullying.

How can workplace bullying occur?

Workplace bullying may occur through:

  • verbal or physical abuse
  • email
  • text messages
  • internet chat rooms
  • instant messaging, or
  • other social media channels.

It can continue outside of the workplace.

It can be directed at a single worker or group of workers and can be carried out by one or more workers.

It can occur between workers, downwards from supervisors or managers to workers, or from workers to supervisors or managers.

It can be directed at or carried out by other people at the workplace, like:

  • clients
  • patients
  • students
  • customers, and
  • members of the public.

Responsibilities to prevent workplace bullying

Everyone at the workplace has a duty in relation to workplace bullying.

Failure to take steps to manage the risk of workplace bullying can result in a breach of Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws.

A person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) has the primary duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that workers and other people are not exposed to health and safety risks arising from work carried out as part of the business or undertaking. This duty includes providing and maintaining a safe work environment that is without risks to health and safety.

Workers and other people at a workplace must take reasonable care that their behaviour does not adversely affect the health and safety of other persons. Workers must also comply, so far as is reasonably practicable, with any reasonable instruction given and co-operate with reasonable policies and procedures of the PCBU that the worker has been notified of, such as a workplace bullying policy.

Managing workplace bullying

It is best to take steps to prevent workplace bullying before it creates a risk to health and safety.
PCBUs can minimise the risk of workplace bullying by taking a proactive approach to early identification of any unreasonable behaviour and situations likely to increase the risk of workplace bullying occurring, implementing control measures to manage these risks, and monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of these measures.

Resources

Support

If you are feeling depressed, stressed or anxious as a result of any bullying behaviour, you can also seek help from other external support services:

  • Check if your workplace has an employee assistance program that can offer confidential support.
  • Make an appointment to speak with your doctor.
  • Call BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636. BeyondBlue provides confidential advice and support through trained mental health professionals.
  • Call Lifeline on 13 11 14. Lifeline provides 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services.
  • Contact the Fair Work Commission which, in some circumstances, can make an order to prevent or stop a worker being bullied under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).
  • Contact the Australian Human Rights Commission  which investigates and resolve complaints (under federal laws), of bullying based on a person’s sex, disability, race or age. It can also investigate and resolve complaints of workplace bullying based on a person’s criminal record, trade union activity, political opinion, religion or social origin.

Our research

The Australian Workplace Barometer project aims to provide evidence of Australian work conditions and their relationships to workplace health and productivity through a national monitoring and surveillance system.

The Psychosocial Safety Climate and Better Productivity in Australian Workplaces: Cost, Productivity, Presenteeism, Absenteesim and Bullying & Harassment in Australian Workplaces: Results from the Australian Workplace Barometer project 2014/2015 reports were published in 2016.

Feedback

Questions should be emailed to info@swa.gov.au.

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