Despite a change in fast-tracking complaints, there are more reports of bullying which experts link to management’s loss of control in the workplace
orkplace lawyer Josh Bornstein was so emotionally affected by a bullying case handled by his firm that he lobbied the prime minister to fast-track the complaints process so victims could quickly put an end to their torment.
The case that spurred him to action involved a 42-year-old female road worker who was so widely bullied by so many people over two years she developed depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and is unlikely to be able to work again.
In January the supreme court of Victoria awarded her $1.36m in compensation after she endured rape threats and sexual harassment.
“This was very graphic to read and distressing. Her health is irretrievably damaged,” says Bornstein, a principal at Maurice Blackburn in Melbourne.
By lobbying the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, Bornstein managed to get a change in the law under the Fair Work Act, which allows bullying victims to fast-track their matters and have an order made to stop the behaviour.
“That was … wonderful. I don’t usually get to do anything like that,” says Bornstein of his victory two years ago.
“Because the new laws [came about] in 2013, employers have been required to improve their compliance and improve their internal processes to deal with bullying complaints.”
The complaints process may be improving, but bullying is not getting any better.
In fact, there has been a significant rise in incidents over the past five years, according to the Australian Workplace Barometer project, which has produced the first national collection of information on bullying and harassment in Australian workplaces.
Nearly one in 10 workers (9.7%) say they have been bullied in the past six months, up from 7% in 2010. The most frequent perpetrators are supervisors who are most likely to yell at people and humiliate them.
Bullying is estimated to cost up to $36bn annually in Australia through its impacts on victims and bystanders, say the workplace barometer report’s authors, academics from the University of South Australia.
Rhonda Brighton-Hall, an Australian expert in human resources, has an interesting theory about what is behind the rise in workplace bullying.
She sees it as a backlash to managers’ loss of control in the modern workplace, twinned with a ramping up of pressure.
“The workforce is so mobile. People are working from home, they are moving around. They [managers] don’t have the control they used to have,” says Brighton-Hall, who is on the board of the Australian Human Resources Institute and has held executive HR roles at the Commonwealth Bank and Luxottica.
“They used to sit at their desk, the team sat in front of them and they had control. Now they don’t. So they try to put processes in place to try and control everybody, they put in more and more rules and expectations so that nobody really knows what they are.”
Brighton-Hall says that treatment makes workers feel unworthy. “That type of bullying is insidious and it is very damaging on the individual,” she says.
Added to that is work intensification, which is cramming more tasks and responsibilities into people’s working hours.
“Putting them into a pressure cooker means that people are acting out … more than they used to,” she says.
While Bornstein says fast-tracking means he is seeing fewer bullying cases. Brighton-Hall, who at HR level is further down the line of complaint, is seeing no improvement in behaviour.
“There’s certainly an increase in incidents – I am seeing so many more cases and there is also more reporting on it because there has been an increase in understanding what bullying is,” Brighton-Hall says.
The barometer report, which surveyed 4,200 people, puts forward three reasons for the bullying: a lack of managerial regard for workplace psychological health and safety; bullying and harassment used to get more productivity from workers; and personal power plays.
Bullying tends to occur in workplaces where there is not enough commitment from senior managers to contain stress levels and prioritise psychological health.
Poor task and job design leads to people being overwhelmed by demands while struggling with low levels of resources. This creates an environment ripe for bullying.
“Many managers or supervisors feel pressured to compete for job permanency, and strained to complete tasks or meet targets or objectives,” according to the report, released in November.
“As a result they may employ bullying tactics, under these stressful conditions and pressures, perhaps through poor performance management processes, to drive greater performance.”
As one overwhelmed complainant said to Brighton-Hall: “My boss sent me four texts on Saturday and five on Sunday and I was away for the weekend, so I didn’t respond until Sunday night when I got home. And, by Monday morning, I had a warning letter.”
This wasn’t just one weekend either, says Brighton-Hall. “There is this constant upping of the pressure to make the person feel they are not doing a good job.”
The barometer report recommends organisations improve psychological safety by reducing work conditions such as high demand, high pressure, high competition and low control/power situations.
Workplace bullying: why management backlash is behind Australia's steep rise by Fiona Smith. Available from <https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/dec/05/workplace-bulling-why-management-backlash-is-behind-australias-steep-rise> [Monday 5 December 2016 01.32 GMT]