Where does OHS fall down in addressing and minimising bullying in the workplace?

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Tuesday, 16 April, 2019 - 11:15
Industry news
National News

OHS professionals need to take a proactive role in managing and minimising workplace bullying, according to an expert in the area, who said there is 30 years of international research which has demonstrated strong links between bullying and workplace injury.

Such injuries are both mental and physical, as the former often manifests itself in physical symptoms, said Michael Plowright, founder of Working Well Together.

“Bullying injury is something that occurs over a longer period of time, hence the repeated behaviours characteristic in its definition,” he said.

“The longer the behaviour occurs, the greater likely the injury will be more serious.”
Plowright, who was speaking ahead of the SIA National Health and Safety Conference, which will be held from 22-23 May 2019 at the International Convention Centre in Sydney, said that at its lower end, injury will be an unhealthy level of stress and anxiety along with sleepless nights.

At the higher end, he said it can be post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts and heart attacks.

“It may end up in violence either towards oneself (taking of their own life) or others,” he said.

Plowright observed that the success of managing and mitigating workplace bullying is “very likely a mixed bucket” across most organisations.

“Some do it well, others not so much,” he said.

“Its success depends on organisational culture and whether a climate of safety exists for employees to raise their concerns without negative consequences.

“Is it safe for them to do so? That can come down to the individual leadership style of one manager who has the knowledge and skill in how to lead people.”

Plowright pointed to figures released in 2016 from the Australian Workplace Barometer Project report, which found that 9.6 per cent of employees will experience bullying within a six-month period.

The 2014 Workplace Bullying in Australia report also found that 41.6 per cent of Australian employees experience bullying at some time in their working life.

“Our awareness of bullying has increased, which is a great start for bullying’s management and mitigation, but it still has a long way to go,” he said.

There are a number of challenges for organisations in the process – first and foremost of which is understanding what bullying is.

“Bullying is complicated dynamic and because of that I often see the term used out of context,” said Plowright.

“Bullying has three distinct characteristics in that it is unreasonable behaviour, that is repeated and that behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.”

This is defined in the Fair Work Act, according to Plowright, who said there is a strong power dynamic as well that needs to be present, in that one person does not have the ability to defend themselves against the other person.

“All too often I work with organisations where employees are claiming bullying, but it is conflict or an employer taking reasonable management action,” he said.

“As a result, we see organisations not managing bullying effectively.

“If you don’t know what it is, you can’t call it out.

“If employees raise that they are being bullied and they are being performance managed, if you don’t know what it is, you can’t effectively counter argue.”

Unfortunately, Plowright said behavioural management also absorbs valuable time resources and can be viewed as conflict.

“Most of us avoid conflict as much as we can. It’s a flight or fight response,” he said.

“I can empathise with that having been a manager for 15 years, but it didn’t result in good outcomes.”

Unaddressed negative behaviours result in less productive workplaces characterised by higher levels of absenteeism, presenteeism, employee turnover which costs organisations valuable resources, Plowright added.

There are a number of steps organisations and OHS professionals can take to address workplace bullying, and Plowright said that acting early is vital in workplace bullying prevention and management.

“If we can act early, we interrupt the bullying cycle and prevent injury,” he said.

“It goes without saying that all organisations need the tools (systems, policies and procedures) as the backbone to bullying prevention.

“Around that you require two key factors: education and support.”

Education includes understanding what is and is not bullying so it can be recognised in its early stages and prevented.

Education also needs to be targeted to all employees so that bystanders – not just the bullied employee – can be empowered to step up when required to create a safe, positive and bullying free workplace.

“We know that bullying can escalate from unaddressed conflict, so part of up-skilling our employees needs to be focused on how to appropriately and safely address conflict in its early stages,” he said.
“Emotional intelligence is vital it this process because it helps us to identify and act.”

The other side of this is support, and Plowright said all employees need to be supported to prevent escalation to injury.

“The target of behaviours needs to be assessed for injury and a support plan developed to prevent Workcover or legal claims,” he said.

Managers need to be supported to become leaders developing safe cultures, but also to performance manage when required.

Employees who use bullying type behaviours need to be supported to try and change their behaviours in ways that doesn’t result in injury.

“If they can’t, they do need to be performance managed,” he said.

“Bullying prevention is about creating a safe workplace that is productive and a place that employees want to work. It is great for an organisations bottom line.”


Plowright will be speaking at the SIA National Health and Safety Conference, which will be held from 22-23 May 2019 at the International Convention Centre in Sydney. As part of the #SAFETYSCAPE Convention, the conference will bring together stakeholders across the health and safety profession to discuss some of the challenges currently faced by WHS professionals and practitioners and explore the impacts these have on the OHS profession, For more information, call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the SIA National Health and Safety Conference website