Workplace bullying is a serious risk to employees' health and safety and can occur in any workplace.
Workplace bullying definition
Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed at an employee or group of employees that creates a risk to health and safety.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires employers to eliminate risks to health and safety, so far as reasonably practicable. If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate risks, the employer must reduce risks, so far as reasonably practicable.
The best approach to deal with risks to health and safety associated with workplace bullying is to implement appropriate measures in the workplace.
In line with their duty to eliminate and reduce risks to health, including psychological health, employers have a responsibility to identify hazards and assess associated risks that may lead to workplace bullying. As an employer, you must control any associated risks, review and, if necessary, revise risk control measures.
What is workplace bullying?
Examples of workplace bullying include repeated:
verbal abuse. For example, being sworn at, threatened, insulted, continual inappropriate and/or invalid criticism, name calling, practical jokes, unjustified threats of punishment, belittling and humiliation, gossip and malicious rumours, inappropriate language, yelling
hostile behaviour toward a staff member or group. For example, excluding them from conversations or various activities
abusive or offensive e-mails or other correspondence
threatening body language
unreasonable demands, unnecessary pressure and impossible deadlines which are targeted at an individual or group of individuals
unfair allocation of tasks and/or working hours. For example, repeatedly requiring a particular person to stay back after hours or rostering them onto night duty
deliberately changing work rosters to inconvenience an employee
undermining a person's work performance, recognition or position, especially with their managers or co-workers
deliberately withholding necessary work-related information or resources or supplying incorrect information
inappropriate surveillance or monitoring
inappropriate interference with personal belongings or work equipment
unequal or unreasonable exclusion from or access to training
unequal application of work rules and benefits
unreasonably excluding employees from activities
unreasonably isolating an employee from others
setting tasks that are above or beyond a person’s skill level without access to training or support
What isn't workplace bullying?
Reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner is not bullying. Examples of reasonable management actions may include:
genuine and reasonable instructions
setting reasonable performance goals, standards and deadlines
rostering and allocating working hours, where the requirements are reasonable
transferring a worker for genuine operational reasons
informing a worker about inappropriate behaviour in an objective and confidential way
deciding not to select a worker for promotion where a reasonable process is followed and documented
making organisational changes or restructuring, with consultation
constructive comments which are objective and indicate observable deficiencies in performance or conduct
constructively delivered feedback or counselling intended to help employees to improve their work performance or the standard of their behaviour
justified termination of employment
Causes of bullying
Work-related factors, also known as psychosocial hazards, are anything in the management or design of work that increases the risk of work-related stress. A number of work-related factors can increase the risk of workplace bullying if they are not addressed, including:
Presence of work stressors
high job demands
limited job control
organisational change, such as restructuring or significant technological change
role conflict and ambiguity
an acceptance of unreasonable workplace behaviours or lack of behavioural standards, and
unreasonable expectations of clients or customers
autocratic behaviour that is strict and directive and does not allow employees to be involved in decision making
behaviour where little or no guidance is provided to employees or responsibilities are inappropriately and informally delegated to subordinates,
abusive and demeaning behaviour that may include inappropriate or derogatory language, or malicious criticism and feedback
Systems of work
lack of resources
lack of training
inappropriate work scheduling, shift work and poorly designed rostering, and
unreasonable performance measures or timeframes
Poor workplace relationships
low levels of support
work group hostility
Groups of employees that may be more at risk of being exposed to workplace bullying can include:
employees in a minority group because of ethnicity, religion, disability, gender or sexual preferences
injured employees and employees on return to work plans
volunteers, work experience students and interns
Impact of bullying
Workplace bullying can impact people in a number of ways, including:
distress, anxiety, panic attacks or sleep disturbance
physical illness, such as muscular tension, headaches and digestive problems
reduced work performance
loss of self-esteem and feelings of isolation
changes in eating habits
higher risk of illness
deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family and friends
increased risk of suicide
increased risk of suicidal thoughts, suicide plans, and suicide attempts
long-term anxiety disorders
post-traumatic stress disorder
poor general health
self-destructive behaviour, including self-harm
difficulty establishing trusting, reciprocal friendships and relationships
Consultation with employees
Occupational health and safety (OHS) law requires employers to consult with employees who are or who are likely to be directly affected by a health and safety matter. Consultation must involve the employees' health and safety representative(HSR), if the workplace has an HSR.
Consultation is required when:
identifying or assessing hazards or risks at a workplace, including the risk of workplace bullying
making decisions about the measures to control the risks to health and safety
making decisions about procedures for resolving health or safety issues
providing information and training
proposing changes that may affect the health and safety of employees
Consultation can help you implement preventative measures and raise awareness in the workforce. Effective consultation can improve workplace culture and reduce the risk of bullying as well as other inappropriate behaviours that have an impact on health and safety.
Consultation must include sharing information, giving employees a reasonable opportunity to express their views and taking those views into account before making decisions on work health and safety matters that directly affect the employees.
Consultation gives employees input in developing workplace bullying policies and procedures best suited to the needs of the business or undertaking. Effective consultation can also help raise awareness of workplace bullying. Businesses, particularly small businesses with limited resources, may choose to engage external specialists to help with their consultation processes. The WorkSafe Advisory Services can also help. You'll find information about the WorkSafe Advisory service at the bottom of this page, along with cards linking to organisations which can help with workplace bullying.
Bullying can have multiple offenders
A bullying incident can involve multiple offenders, including:
an employee or group of employees
an employee manager or supervisor
A person, through their bullying behaviour, may be guilty of an offence under the OHS Act. However, the employer and other individuals may have breached the OHS Act by their failure to take action against bullying behaviour. For example:
the employer has failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health associated with bullying or as a result of failing to respond to bullying behaviour
an employee, including a manager or supervisor, has acted in a way that fails to take reasonable care for the health and safety of others at a workplace
This information is from 'Workplace bullying: A guide for employers'. The complete guide is available in two formats.