Access to our Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne offices is currently restricted. To visit us at these locations, call 1300 366 979 to arrange an appointment.

Workplace Bullying video transcript

For: Employers and managers Information seekers

Presentation given by Michelle Tuckey, University of South Australia, at Comcare's Mental Health Community of Practice in December 2019.

View the video of Michelle Tuckey's presentation.

Thank you very much. I'm really glad to be here talking about what is essentially my research passion and what I've dedicated my academic career to over the last 15 years. I want to give you four key messages that I've extracted out of the evidence and just unpack what is the evidence behind those four key messages as we go through, but before I start, I just want to acknowledge the amazing group of people that I've worked with along the way at the university and other places and also, the funders of our work. We couldn't do this important work without those funders or those collaborators. I see one up there in the audience.

So, Cilla did a wonderful job of unpacking the definition of bullying, really good examples of what is and isn't bullying. I don't need to add too much to that at this point other than to say that even if behaviour doesn't meet the definition of workplace bullying, it still may have a really important impact on the mental health and wellbeing of workers. So, the perception of being bullied is actually really, really important. In our research centre with the Australian Workplace Barometer, we've actually compared worker's responses to this definition and also to a more academic style definition that's used throughout the research literature, and we get a very, very close correspondence.

So, the idea of feeling bullied is really important. It has important effect on the outcomes, and also, what we see in the academic literature has a good translation to our Australian context because the prevalence of responding is only 0.03% difference between the two.

So, the first message that I want to focus on today is that bullying is a serious work health and safety hazard. I'm sure most of you here all agree with that. That's why you're here today to learn about how to prevent it, but I just want to give you some of the research context behind why we might say something like that. So, five years ago, with colleague Annabelle Neall, we published a review of all of the existing studies of workplace bullying, generalised harassment, other forms of bullying type abuse in organisations, and we found that many, many of the studies had been focused on the outcomes. So, around 45% of studies just focused on trying to understand the outcomes of bullying and a further 20% focused on looking at both antecedents and outcomes. So, nearly two-thirds of all studies of bullying had been really focused on this area. So, we have a really good quality evidence-base internationally for trying to understand the impact of bullying.

So, one of the meta-analyses that was published in 2012 actually looked at all the studies specifically on workplace bullying right across the world, 66 different studies they found at that time published up to 2011. Here's a summary of what they found in those studies. They found in the cross-sectional studies, so those studies, which had only taken one measurement point where they measure exposure to workplace bullying, measure a range of different outcomes, we see associations between bullying and mental health problems, post-traumatic stress symptoms, generalised strains, psychosomatic symptoms that manifest in the body, burnout at work, physical health problems and absenteeism. We see that it undermines job satisfaction and organisational commitment as well. So, these are two really important criteria that organisations and managers will focus on. So, impacts on individuals, impacts on those important organisational outcomes as well.

There were fewer longitudinal studies that they could draw on, and so, they had to bundle all the effects in together, but they've demonstrated that over time, even when you control for baseline mental health status, bullying has a negative effect on mental health, but we also see the reverse relationship as well. If you're having difficulties with your mental health and wellbeing, you're more likely to report being bullied at a later point in time. So, there's a potential for a negative downward spiral once bullying behaviour start.

Some of my own research has shown that bullying makes people exhausted when they're trying to battle against the bullying. It actually isolates them from their social supports in the workplace, and this is what can contribute to that downward spiral. There's also a really clear link between bullying and absenteeism in that longitudinal evidence base. Again, controlling for prior levels of absenteeism before the onset of the bullying. So, without a doubt, there's no question in the research evidence that bullying is a serious issue in terms of the outcomes that it has.

I wanted to share with you some of my unpublished data, which I'm just writing up at the moment. It's the only kind of data that I've seen like this going around, and that's the link between workplace bullying and objective cognitive performance. What does that mean? It means actual performance on tasks of working memory and attention. So, what we did is we brought people into the university, into our lab. Some of them had self-identified as being targets of bullying, and we checked that out in the normal ways through the questionnaire and prevalence exposure. The others had identified and not having been exposed to bullying in the last six months.

Then, we showed them on a computer screen an array of objects. So, it might have been a mug, a pair of scissors located in different places on the screen, and they had to remember the names of those objects, where they were located, or they had to do both together. What we see on this slide here is the results of people undertaking that tasks. So, targets of bullying in this lighter green, greeny-yellow colour, actually performed much more poorly the non-targets of bullying on all of those tasks of working memory, so the verbal aspect of working memory, the visual aspect of working memory, and the central executive, which controls all of our major intellectual functions. So, we see a noticeable difference for people who've been bullied at work compared to those who haven't been. So, for me, this is really powerful evidence that bullying actually impacts the way we can do our job, how high we can perform on our job in terms of our actual cognitive capacity.

Of course, in Australia, as Sue mentioned right at the start, it's close to 10% of workers across the country actually report being exposed. This places us right at the top in compared to the EU countries. So, our previous exposure, the bottom red line was around 7% in the Australian Workplace Barometer data from 2009 to 2011. In the most recent measurement in 2014, '15, that's actually increased to 9.7% and actually places us right up the top in comparative to European countries. So, this is something we really need to take account of. As Cilla said, it may be one of the most serious safety issues facing Australian workplaces at this time.

So, the second message, and this is a really important message that I want you to take on board today, is that workplace bullying is actually an organisational problem, not an individual problem. So, to start to paint this picture, I want to draw again on a review of all of the evidence that exists internationally. This is fairly old now. It was published in 2006, but it looked at all the studies published from 1997 right up to 2005. That had some information about the antecedents of bullying, about the causes of bullying.

What that study concluded is that the organisational factors are actually more important than individual factors, things like self-esteem or gender or age or how negative you are or positive you are more generally in determining bullying exposure. So, in particular, they identified that job demands are really important in trying to understand bullying exposure to the extent that you have much higher job demands in your workplace, people are more likely to report being bullied. So, they focused in on role-related demands. How clear are the boundaries of your role? If you don't have clear boundaries around your role, it's much easier for people to give you tasks outside of your competence, tasks outside of your role and for you to therefore feel bullied at work.

Likewise, role conflict when there's differing expectations across different areas of the organisations that come to bear on you, you can experience that as bullying, and role overload. So, just the volume and amount of work and the deadlines that you need to face. So, these are all important in understanding bullying exposure. Work constraints as well, so that's bureaucracy and red tape and other kind of limiting factors. They're associated with greater exposure to bullying.

Now, on the flip side and when we're looking across the international evidence base, having job resources, things that help you get the work done, actually protect you against bullying exposure. The one on which they had enough data to comment on in this study was job control. So, that extent to which workers have control over when they do their work, how they do their work, and they can use their skills in a good way to do their work, then they're protected against bullying exposure.

We have some examples from our own work that we've done at the University of South Australia to illustrate this. So, what we see in the top three lines in the graph is that as job demands increase in a workplace, so too does the level of bullying that's witnessed in the workplace. In this particular context, it was police officers working in police stations. So, when they experience more of psychological demands, having to work harder and faster and so on, bullying levels that they witnessed in others increased except in the case of the bottom line, and that's where they had very high levels of control and support. So, when you've got those good ingredients in place, when you give people control over their work, when you give them enough support from colleagues, informational support for how to do their job, but also emotional support to cope with those aspects of the job, then we see that bullying levels decrease.

So, bullying then, and the way I understand it from working in this field for 15 years and synthesising all of that literature, bullying is really a systems issue. So, it arises from stress in the organisational system, not just stress on individuals, but stress in the whole organisational system. So, it's more likely to thrive when there's high pressure, when there's high demands, when there's role stress, when there's low control and lack of resources, but then, it's tolerated and reinforced by the culture and by the behaviour of leaders. That's really important. Again, that's one of the things that that makes it a systems issue. If you've got signals from the top that bullying's okay, it's the what we do around here, then it's more likely to continue. The reverse, when leaders lead from the top and give the signals that bullying is not okay around here, that it's safe to speak up, that meaningful action will be taken really quickly to address bullying, then we can reverse that trend.

So, another way I like to think about it is that bullying really is the symptom of what's going on in an organisation, a symptom of that underlying organisational health. It's not the disease we need to focus on. We can't just focus on the bullying behaviour. We need to go right back to the cause of that symptom. So, you can think about this as being the tip of the iceberg. When you think about bullying, people think about those bullying behaviours, and there's been high profile cases and so on, but that's just the visible tip of the iceberg. If we really want to understand what the causes of bullying are, it's poor work environments, and they're at the base of the iceberg. So, if we really want to focus on preventing bullying, we actually need to focus right down on these root causes rather than just on the visible behaviour itself.

So, that then brings me to the third key message that I want to share with you today, is that bullying predominantly, on mass, is still tackled at the tip of the iceberg. So I've listed here a range of different responses that we see in organisations when trying to prevent and respond to bullying conduct. These, really, ones in green are really common, so having a bullying policy and a code of conduct, providing bullying and harassment awareness training and asking workers to do that training, and then we say, 'Okay, workers, you know what bullying is now. You've done your training. Be nice to each other.' Unfortunately, that doesn't work. Okay, so if it doesn't work, just report it. Then, we've got a complaints mechanism. We've got an investigation process, and then we'll go through that process, and put in place some corrective actions.

Now, make no mistake. These things are all really important. They play an important signalling function in showing that, no, bullying is not okay, and yeah, there are things that we will do about it because we're serious about it. So, absolutely, these are really important ingredients in the prevention of bullying at work, but you can see that they're pretty much focusing down on the behaviour end on that tip of the iceberg. They're targeting the visible behaviour rather than the things that we know from the evidence base. It's really clear from the evidence base that the actual causes are up at the system's end, and so, really what we need to do is focus in this top right corner here on identifying and reducing the organisational risk factors, the organisational risk conditions, those system factors that actually enable bullying, reward bullying, and trigger bullying in the first place.

So, the key message number four, which is actually I think quite a good news message is that bullying can actually be designed out through risk management. So, this is a line of work that I started around about six years ago when I thought to myself, I don't want to come to another forum like this and give a talk on workplace bullying without having something really meaningful to say about how to prevent it. So, over the last six or so years, we've done this line of research on the risk management of workplace bullying and how we can actually do that in a proactive fashion to really get to bullying prevention.

So, well, the data that's kind of grounding this line of work is actually our analysis of real life workplace bullying complaints. So, we wanted to use that kind of data to see how is bullying actually manifesting in organisational systems in a range of different workplaces. So, often, the approach used in the academic literature is a survey study where workers from an organisation will complete some measures on bullying and measures of the work environment like their demands and outcomes. We wanted to take a different approach to see if we could learn something new about those system factors involved in bullying.

So, we actually had a sample of 342 workplace bullying complaints that were lodged with our state health and safety regulator, SafeWork SA, though that was around five and a half thousand pages of information. That was de-identified and transcribed, and that in itself took around about a year to get that information released to us. Then, we went through the process of analysing that. So, again, that's at least another year to actually work through all of that information. Some of the files were as small as four or five pages, and some were as large as 180 pages of information. Then, they had the complaint, a lot of different forms of evidence around the complaint, the notes from the inspector visits, the outcome letters and so on, so really, really rich and good information and data sources.

What did we discover? Well, I have to say it's not rocket science, but it is something that wasn't in the academic literature, and it's something that really resonates every time I do one of these talks, is that it comes down to the management and coordination of people and tasks in workplaces. These explained all about, about two of those workplace bullying complaints in that sample. So, when people and tasks aren't managed and coordinated well, staff can feel bullied, mistreated, undervalued, burnt out. So, again, not all of these 342 complaints were bullying, and in fact, that determination wasn't actually made in those cases, but they represent the risk areas for bullying at work where we really need to pay attention if we want to prevent the perception and also the actual occurrence of bullying.

So, they fell into three different sort of thematic domains. The first one is how working hours are coordinated and administrated. So, rosters, schedules, that kind of thing, over time, also leave and entitlements, so getting the pays right and not being underpaid, having access to leave when you need it in a reasonable way. The second area, and this is covering about 82% of those complaints, is managing work performance. Again, as we've already heard this morning, management underperformance is a huge risk area. About 40% of all of those 342 complaints fell into there, but managing work performance starts right from having clear job roles actually and being really trained well and prepared to undertake the work and then having a good development pathway, having performance monitored appropriately, recognised appropriately and rewarded appropriately, having a fair process for allocating tasks and workload, and that's manageable on both an individual level but also kind of collectively across the unit. So, they're the sorts of things that come into that second area.

The last area is a bit more general around the work environment and the work relationships and whether there's importance to mental health and psychosocial safety, whether it's a physically safe working environment because people actually feel like that can be part of the bullying process if they're forced to work in unsafe conditions, and then, how interpersonal relationships are managed on an individual level and with the team.

So, what this means is that we can actually target risk management efforts towards these 10 domains at the right of the screen. We can actually focus on understanding what's working well in those areas and what's not working so well in those areas and redesign those to function smoothly and effectively and in doing so, prevent bullying at work and the perception of bullying at work. As an illustration and a way of bringing it to life, I also want to draw on one of the cases that went before the Fair Work Commission. We're doing a bit of analysis now with those judgements to map them against the areas in that framework that emerged from our data just to see if there's some correspondence there.

So, this is the case of a teacher who was also the work health and safety representative and the principal who was the alleged bully in this case. So, the teacher alleged 16 different incidents of bullying behaviour that were repeated and unreasonable behaviour, creating a risk to the teacher's mental health. The commission found that four of those 16 were actually did constitute instance of bullying behaviour. That was involving a new business manager in the annual performance appraisal. That was seen as an unreasonable thing to do particularly because the relationship between that business manager and the teacher wasn't very good to begin with.

The teacher was told that her long service leave payment hadn't been approved, and she was told this in an aggressive way. So, it was both untrue with the wrong kind of tone, and so, that was regarded as being unreasonable. When she returned from long service leave, she was put through an induction training course. There was no basis for that in policy and in practice and no basis in terms of her experience or her behaviour. Then, she was allocated a less experienced mentor as well. So, again, that was seen as unreasonable with respect to her experience as a teacher and with respect to the policies and practices of the organisation. So, these are all things that kind of fall in that framework. So, it's interesting for us to do that check against the kinds of things that are being regarded as incidents of bullying under that fair work jurisdiction.

Okay. So, what have we done since discovering that some years ago? We went through quite a rigorous process involving about another five studies, which I don't have time to mention today, but please contact me if you're interested in the details to actually translate that framework into a risk audit tool. So, we now have a paper-based tool and a web-based tool that can actually identify areas of bullying risk in an organisation. So, where across those 10 domains is the risk of bullying highest? Where should focus our bullying prevention efforts and right across the unit, is it a high sort of level of risk or a medium or a lower level of risks?

So, we've done that translation. We had to go back and re-analyse all of that data again a second time for another year. So, I have to thank my team so much at the start of every talk because gee, it was an amazing effort by them. Now, we've got this tool. So, we've actually validated the tool in a range of ways. One of the validation studies was working in a hospital. So, we'd already had a three-year program of research in this hospital, which was great because we've been able to collect lots of information from them around their bullying exposure, exposure to violence on the ward.

We had our survey data, but we also had the data held from their safety learning system that's lodged right with the health department, SA Health, so we're able to match. We came in then with the risk audit tool, and we're able to match that risk audit tool data to the data held by SA Health and to the data we already had on the wards, so connecting three different and independent sources of data here. What we find is that the tool can actually discriminate between those wards, which are the high risk wards to work on.

So, when we look at workers' compensation claims, work injuries, patient related safety errors, so the quality of care that's provided to a patient and a whole range of other indicators, our tool, high scores on the tool can identify those high risk wards, medium risk wards, and the low risk wards. So, it really is a predictive tool in terms of the level of work and health and safety risk for workers, particularly in terms of mental health but more broadly, physical health as well and also patient related safety errors, and of course, important for us was that it predicted exposure to workplace bullying concurrently on the same survey. That was over and above six other workplace factors that we know from the literature, job demands and things that I talked about before are the predictors of bullying. So, good evidence that this tool is doing the kind of predictive action that we wanted to.

Where are we using the tool now? So, we started off in the work health and safety regulation space, so using across SafeWork New South Wales, a couple of trial sites in conjunction with WorkSafe Victoria, and also now in South Australia with SafeWork SA who'd been one of the major funders of this line of work. We've done a lot of targeted risk management, so where there's an identified bullying problem come in and done this risk assessment and helped through a process of now understanding how we change the work environment to try and change the bullying problem rather than just focusing on behaviour. So, quite a few sites in terms of correctional services, youth justice and that sector. Health, so different hospitals and community services as well.

We're now embarking on some programs of really systematic risk management, so looking right across agencies in retail, in government departments, assessing multiple teams to actually do that diagnosis and respond in a true sort of proactive risk management fashion. A few areas in higher education are looking at how to use this in response to bullying complaints, particularly before they've escalated. So okay, let's try and understand what are the drivers in the work environment that are actually contributing to this behaviour we're seeing amongst staff, and can we change those drivers, and therefore, can we resolve this relationship problem maybe with some other supports as well?

So, I'll share with you just a little bit of what's coming out of the evaluation of our trial with SafeWork New South Wales. So, here, a select group of inspectors who make up their psychosocial team had been trained in how to use the tool. We also have a checklist version of the tool for them that can guide their inquiries, their lines of questioning when they go out to workplaces where the work has made a request for service that involves allegations of bullying. So, we've accompanied them on field visits, and we've done interviews that have been transcribed and recorded and analysed. What's coming out is sort of two themes there, the response capability's been improved, so their actual capacity to manage psychosocial hazards and bullying has been helped with this tool, but also, their focus and efficiency of the way they can deliver their response has been improved.

So, in the first area, what they're saying is ... Well, this gives us a more objective assessment of risks. I think one of the barriers to dealing with psychosocial hazards is it's much less easy to see. It's much less tangible. So, this tool is a way of getting a diagnostic report and an assessment that's done in a valid and reliable way, which is really helpful for trying to frame their response. They also really appreciate the systems orientation that I've talked through and the idea of the iceberg. I find that helpful in engaging with the owners of businesses in trying to understand that this is actually an organisational issue and not an individual issue, and it highlights the areas for action. So, if an organisation can only really focus their resources in one area, where should they start to tackle this problem that's emerging?

It sharpens their own focus, so they now can do this assessment, and then, they can know what types of information to request. Do they need to request the rosters or the training records or other forms of information evidence to help their case? It helps contextualise the problem again, so taking it from just the two or three or four people involved in the complaint to the bigger issue, and it's quick and easy to implement, so it helps them move on with their investigation. So, we're getting some good feedback from them.

Still some barriers to using it though, just the understanding of psychosocial hazards out in the community, but also even within SafeWork as well. There's still some room to move there to improve that and to see it as a systems issue and to support responding to it in that way. As always, resources to try and get your head around trying something new is hard when you're already under a really high workload. It's been great to work with them to see how that's going in the regulation space.

We've also now developed an intervention process to support what to do with the results of the tool. So, this has been done in the conjunction of using ... yeah, in those different places in health, in community services, in correctional services. So, we now have the diagnosis where we get data from the risk audit tool, and there are other sources of data. So, organisations already have a lot of information. Yeah, they've got information on bullying exposure, bullying complaints. That's a lagging indicator, but there are other sources of information from culture surveys, exit surveys, absenteeism. We can bundle all that information together to try and understand what's going on.

Then, we bring that information into co-design workshops. So, a really important principle of risk management of psychosocial hazards is that workers should be involved throughout the process, and they should have input into understanding the risks but also into understanding the risk controls or the solutions that are put into place. So, we run workshops that have representations for all levels of the organisation, frontline staff, right up to senior managers to actually unpack the diagnostic reports, understand what's going on and generate a range of solutions, things that can start tomorrow right through to things that might take a couple of years to implement. The focus of all of those is to change the way things are working in those 10 different areas, to change the way that people in tasks come together in organisations to prevent bullying and the perception of bullying.

We hold town hall briefings around the results and ways of actually sharing that information beyond the group that participates in the workshops. Then, there's an implementation phase, of course, where those solutions are implemented. Lots of potential for things to go wrong there, and that's a really important thing and could probably be a talk in itself, and we go back and re-evaluate. So, we look at the intervention materials and process. We do interviews with stakeholders, we remeasure in terms of the diagnostic outcomes and see the change over time. So, we're just building up that database now and hope to have some conclusive results to share in the near future.

What sorts of things might be the risk control strategies that come out that can actually be used in the proactive risk management of bullying? I guess the most obvious one is, okay, managers change your behaviour. So, okay. If managers can actually do these things like performance discussions in a better way, then sure, we're likely to have less bullying, but I'm really cautious about saying, 'Okay, workers, be nice to each other. Don't bully each other, right?' Okay. Now, managers used to bully people, and we'll be fine. That's one part, but not the only part.

We can work with staff as well, so we can help them understand their role. We can help them understand the role of managers and supervisors and what is reasonable management action and so on. We can give staff skills such as assertiveness, conversation skills to actually be able to intervene if they're a bystander or to raise issues about their own experience in in the right kind of way.

Far and away, where we need to give the most of our attention and aligned with the whole theme of my talk is that we can focus on the organisational systems, policies, procedures, processes and structures. That might involve everything from looking at the supervision and staffing models. So, as an example, one of the prisons that I was doing some work in ... I just had whoever was most senior on the day, was the nominated supervisor. That didn't create any stability and the quality and the type of supervision that was offered or in the team structures.

So, they changed their team structures, and they changed their supervisory model. That involved actually quite a long process with some other changes around the performance development and appraisal around the training offered to actually get that stability. So, stability of staffing, a stability of supervision, and the quality of supervision are really, really important things that we see when we're doing this work in a practical sense.

Role descriptions are out there. Are they clear? Is there input for workers to review them and so on? Communication processes and forums, that's a bundle of sort of actions that come out a lot in those co-design workshops that we do. Again, it might be, yeah, an example from a prison actually announcing when people get promoted on parade or doing some forms of recognition there. It might be a way of sharing information, so really important information in a youth justice centre around staff movements, why some staff have to work in one area and not another, and how that relates to the level of risk health and safety risk of staff.

So, we need to focus on all of these organisational areas, systems, structures and processes, and it really depends on what the diagnostic information shows. So, it's sort of tailored solutions that meet the needs of the unit in question. So, what are the take home messages? I've talked about four key things or unpacked the evidence around each of those areas. So, what I'd like you to leave here today is knowing that there is rigorous evidence that bullying is a serious work health and safety hazard. It has serious effects on the mental health and wellbeing of workers and in terms of organisational outcomes as well. So, there's no question about that.

The second message, anti-bullying policies and bullying awareness training. They're really important for bullying prevention, but they're not sufficient because they focus on the tip of the iceberg. So, a really comprehensive approach to bullying in the workplace will absolutely involve those ingredients, but we cannot forget about the organisational risk factors, about the bottom of the iceberg. That's, I think, where the gap is in Australia. I think there's now greater and greater awareness of bullying, greater willingness in terms of grappling with bullying as an issue. We see policies. We see training as a standard, and so now, there's the opportunity to move into that space of understanding the work environment and how to change the work environment to prevent bullying.

A substantial amount of bullying organisation actually takes place through the day-to-day people and task management. So, we looked at those 342 cases and all of that data, and I was left wondering to myself, okay, well what about that person related bullying, the gossiping, the rumour spreading, being excluded? So, we took a sample of 150 of those cases, and we went back and re-analysed them for those instances of person related bullying. In all of those cases, that kind of person related bullying was not taking place without it also manifesting in these work systems and structures.

So, that was important for reassuring myself that I hadn't missed a really important facet of bullying. So, where bullying is going on, what our case analysis shows is that yeah, absolutely, it shows up in work systems and processes, and it may also show up in the way that people interact interpersonally with each other, but they go together. It's not one existing without the other.

The final point, organisational risk factors for bullying. These are those root causes at the bottom of the iceberg. They can actually be risk managed in a proactive way to design out workplace bullying and to help create a mentally healthy workplace. Thank you.

Page last reviewed: 15 March 2020

GPO Box 9905, Canberra, ACT 2601
1300 366 979 |

Date printed 17 Jun 2024