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How to deal with workplace bullying

We typically associate bullying behaviour with children in the playground. But adults can also be bullied. We find out what you can do if it’s happening in your workplace.

Jo Hartley
August 2018

Bullying in the workplace comes in many forms. It can be overt behaviour that leaves you in no doubt that it’s happening. It can also be less obvious, leaving you to question your perception of the behaviour, your response or what action you should take.

The Fair Work Commission says bullying behaviours can include:

  • intimidating conduct
  • humiliating comments
  • practical jokes
  • exclusion from work-related events
  • pressure to behave in an inappropriate way.

The impact of workplace bullying

One of the biggest impacts is on mental health of the person being bullied. A 2016 review of 59 worldwide studies found substantial evidence that employees who report bullying “experience increasing depressive symptoms over time”.

Safe Work Australia reports that each year around 7,200 Australians are compensated for work-related mental health conditions. Over a 5-year period, 41% of these claims were attributed to harassment, bullying or exposure to violence.

Clinical psychologist Sarah Purvey says that workplace bullying can negatively impact on sleep, appetite, motivation, relationships and coping skills. These symptoms can contribute to depression and anxiety.

“If workplace bullying is causing any of these symptoms or if you’ve started dreading going to work, it’s time to address the issue,” she says.

When your boss is a bully

It’s something that John Harper*, 41, can relate to. Two years ago, he started working as a business development manager in a small company. Around 4 months into his new job, he experienced bullying by his CEO.

“I was set unachievable tasks and berated when I didn’t achieve them,” he says.

“It made me seriously stressed and I struggled to find motivation to get out of bed. My skills were unappreciated and I was being treated unfairly. I wanted to get as far away from the situation as possible.”

Unfortunately for Harper, there was no human resources (HR) department and nobody other than the CEO to report to. His repeated requests to meet with her to discuss the issues were ignored. Eventually, he’d had enough.

“It was the most uncomfortable experience I’ve had in my life,” he says. “I felt that my reputation was being harmed by being associated with the business, and I decided to leave.”

What to do if you’re being bullied

If you’re being bullied, Purvey suggest keeping records.

“Before approaching your manager or HR department, collate any notes, emails, text messages and any other relevant documentation to support your claim. Writing everything down gives more weight to your case and provides a clearer pathway for resolution,” says Purvey.

If your company is small, or doesn’t have an HR department, report the issue to a senior member of staff. If there’s no one available to report to, or the bullying is being done by a senior manager, speak to the Fair Work Commission about your options.

Purvey says “If things are becoming too stressful, take some time off”. You may need to see your GP for a medical certificate.

“Mental health days are an important use of sick leave and can give great capacity to relieve stress and [help you] work out a plan for managing the issue,” she says.

“Visiting a psychologist can also give you strategies to manage stress or interpersonal issues and help with confidence and problem solving.”

You don’t need a referral from your GP to see a psychologist. However, if you see your GP first, they can give you a mental health care plan. This means you may get a Medicare rebate for up to 10 sessions with a psychologist. If you work for a larger organisation you may also be able to access counselling session as a staff benefit.

Purvey advises increasing self-care such as exercising, catching up with friends, or having a massage. Eating well, reducing caffeine and alcohol also become more important to help the brain release ‘feel good’ chemicals such as serotonin.

Using a meditation app such as Headspace or learning breathing, relaxation and mindfulness techniques can also be beneficial.

“If your situation is extreme and causing insomnia, panic attacks, mood swings and a consistent dread of work, you may want to go through the workers compensation process,” says Purvey.

But what are your other options for resolution?

Legal advice

“Employers have a duty to prevent and manage workplace bullying,” says lawyer Trent Hancock from McDonald Murholme, an employment legal firm.

If your company isn’t taking your concerns seriously, you can seek legal advice.

“As a general rule, employment lawyers have standard fees and charges, which are quoted on a case-by-case basis,” advises Hancock. “Some lawyers may offer to work on a conditional costs agreement, where they only charge a fee should the case be successful.”

“If you can’t afford a lawyer, contact the Fair Work Commission and lodge a Stop Bullying application.”

Hancock says the law institute in your state or territory can also give you guidance.

Staying in the workplace

With the right support, strategies and willingness by everyone involved to move on, workplace bullying can be resolved.   

“HR can help facilitate this through maintaining regular communication and catch ups between colleagues,” says Hancock. “Some employees may choose to move departments.”

The responsibility for ongoing prevention or resolution may fall to the director or manager, providing they aren’t the bully.

“Failing that, the employer may find that the bully’s actions warrant termination. The Fair Work Commission can advise on this.”

*  Name has been changed

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