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By Steven Gregor, InPsych production editor

The Labour Council of New South Wales last month launched its new Dignity in the Workplace Charter, aimed at curbing workplace bullying throughout the State. Speaking at the launch, Labour Council Secretary John Robertson said: "It is true that bullying is part of a set of workplace safety issues that are very much a product of our times. They affect people from all walks of life and backgrounds - from doctors to labourers".

There is no doubt that workplace bullying is a newsworthy issue. The potential damage and cost of the phenomenon is undisputed. However, workplace bullying as a recognised practice still has many authorities working furiously to define it - not an easy task due to the often insidious nature of the behaviour.

The definition used by Melbourne-based health psychologist Toni Mellington is the one utilised by WorkSafe Victoria under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. That is, workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed toward an employee, or group of employees, that creates a risk to health and safety. "However, across differing workplace bullying definitions, there remain four key elements: workplace bullying is a workplace conflict; it is enduring and repeated in nature; it is inappropriate and possibly aggressive; and it results in a level of (physical and/or psychological) distress." Mellington has completed research into the area and runs a private practice that focuses on training and interventions to address the issue.

"Workplace bullying has been studied across numerous continents and by many disciplines. There is no one single definition of what workplace bullying actually is. When we think of the word "bullying" unfortunately we mistakenly think immediately of the schoolyard, we think of physical violence. When we look at workplace bullying we should be aware of the wide ranging, often insidious implementation of a diverse range of tactics that constitute the phenomena of workplace bullying. The behaviour Europeans originally called "mobbing" was more sensitive to the subtle and undermining (nature of the) activities. The terms "mobbing" and "workplace bullying" are now used interchangeably to describe the same behaviour," Mellington said.

The prevalence of workplace bullying

Research conducted by Mellington found that as many as 70 per cent of employees were currently being bullied or had been bullied in the past; also, of the remaining sample, just over 13 per cent had witnessed workplace bullying. Of the number that had been bullied, 38 per cent indicated that the bullying activity had occurred for over six months.

Additional research findings released last month at the Labour Council of New South Wales launch reflect Mellington's findings. Its survey of 840 workers found that 74 per cent of respondents had been targeted by workplace bullying, 56 per cent of respondents indicated a bullying culture at their workplace, and 89 per cent wanted workplace policy and procedures to deal with the issue. In fact, bullying is believed by the Council to be the number one occupational health and safety issue in New South Wales.

Bullying behaviour and the often poor outcomes

The most common type of bullying behaviour identified by Mellington's research was verbal (for example, "using put downs, insults or sarcasm to regularly humiliate, being spoken to in rude or abusive language"); the second most common type of behaviour involved psychological manipulation of the work environment (for example, "requests for help or advice being ignored, being deliberately left out of workplace activities, and excessive scrutiny of work").

However, perhaps the most alarmingly finding from Mellington's research was how targets dealt with being bullied; "not doing anything about it (the bullying) was the most common method taken by a target in response to being bullied. And, reporting the bullying or making a complaint were reported to be the most unsuccessful method taken in trying to resolve bullying. The action deemed most successful by respondents were "no action" and "seeking a new job"," Mellington said.

The psychological impact

On an individual level, Mellington said: "Workplace bullying can impact on a person from (creating) mild annoyance through to severe psychological, social and economic trauma. Previous research has indicated impacts such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, decreased self-confidence, panic attacks, fatigue, eating disorders, post traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal ideation." Mellington's research looked predominately at the health impact of workplace bullying and she has identified three key findings:
"There is a direct negative relationship between workplace bullying and health. Workers who indicated that they had been bullied reported poorer health. And, breaking that down even further, the severity of the perceived impact of the bullying was significantly correlated with poorer health."

Secondly, "the negative health effects of workplace bullying linger on well after the bullying has ceased, which just wasn't thought of before. Put simply, we thought people were bullied, it had an impact on them, but then they got better. Workers who had been targeted by a bully reported significantly greater anxiety (after the bullying had ceased) than those who have never experienced or witnessed workplace bullying." The anxiety symptoms Mellington discovered included loss of sleep, being nervous and uptight, and feeling scared and panicky for no reason.

Finally, Mellington's research results suggest that the experience of merely witnessing workplace bullying can also have a negative impact on health. "This has serious ramifications for workplace health because (under Australia's various Occupational Health and Safety Acts) employers must maintain a workplace without risk to health and safety to all employees and this finding indicates that the negative impact of workplace bullying is not just experienced by the person being targeted."

Melbourne-based psychologist and published author on the topic of bullying Evelyn M Field agrees that many targets of workplace bullying experience post traumatic stress disorder. "According to Stale Einarsen in his 1999 study, 75 per cent of the targets of bullying experience the same symptoms as victims of traditional trauma and 65 per cent of those targets still have symptoms five years later. This is a very interesting study. The targets of workplace bullying can experience the same symptoms as Vietnam veterans, holocaust survivors, or even child abuse survivors - and they can remain traumatised throughout the whole of their lives."

Workplace bully profiles

Sydney-based clinical psychologist and workplace bullying specialist Keryl Egan has formulated three workplace bully profiles: the accidental bully, the narcissistic bully, and the serial bully. Egan describes the accidental bully as emotionally blunt, aggressive and demanding. "This person is task orientated and just wants to get things done, tends to panic when things are not getting done, and goes into a rage about it. This person is basically decent, they don't really think about the impact of what's happened or what they have done. They are responding to stress a lot of the time." Importantly, Egan believes this type of bully can be trained or coached out of the bullying behaviour.

The second profile formulated by Egan is the narcissistic bully, who is grandiose and has fantasies of breath-taking achievement. "This type of bully feels they deserve power and position. They can fly into rages whenever reality confronts them. This person is very destructive and manipulative, they don't set out in a callous way to annihilate any other person - it's purely an expression of their superiority."

Finally, Egan's third profile is that of the serial bully "who has a more sociopathic or psychopathic personality. This type of bully is intentional, systematic, and organised and the bullying is often relentless. They usually get things done in terms of self interest, not in the interest of the company." Egan's serial bully employs subtle techniques that are difficult to detect or prove and training or coaching is always unsuccessful; simply, the serial bully is often:

  • grandiose yet charming,
  • authoritative, aggressive and dominating,
  • fearless and shameless,
  • devoid of empathy or remorse,
  • manipulative and deceptive;
  • impulsive, chaotic or stimulus seeking; and
  • a master of imitation and mimicry.

Are certain workplaces more susceptible?

Mellington believes there may be certain workplaces that are more susceptible to workplace bullying. Key indicators of what should be looked for are:

  • organisational change (such as a takeover or change in management);
  • workplace characteristics (for example, a greater representation of minority groups or high job instability and uncertainty about on-going employment);
  • workplace relationships (including low levels of consultation or poor communication); and
  • work systems and structures (for example, no policies or procedures, no clear job descriptions or insufficient training).

What can employers do to stop workplace bullying?

Speaking at the Labor Council of New South Wales launch, Robertson identified the importance of bullying as an issue and the seriousness with which it needs to be stamped out. "Unlike some workplace safety issues, bullying is part of the family of psychological injuries that are often hard to identify - but when they occur their impact can be crushing and traumatic. Our challenge is threefold: to identify psychological risks; to intervene before these risks lead to injury; and to care for workers who are injured and help them back into the workforce.

"We need to see bullying as not just a safety issue, but a sign that a workplace is not psychologically safe. Bullying is about a lack of respect; it is about a breakdown in management; ultimately, it is about abuses of power," Robertson said. He continued by drawing attention to the recent groundbreaking decision handed down by the New South Wales Chief Industrial Magistrate George Miller (in response to a severe and well-publicised recent workplace bullying case), recommending five steps that employers should take to eliminate bullying:

  • Make it known that the company does not tolerate bullying;
  • Implement policies and procedures outlining the employers position on bullying, what is meant by "bullying" and the consequences of "bullying";
  • Ensure awareness of the company's policies and procedures;
  • Establishment of a complaints mechanism where by employees who have been bullied can make a complaint, as well as ensuring grievances are dealt with independently, timely, and kept confidential; and
  • Monitor the effectiveness of these steps on a regular basis.

Robertson concludes, the Labor Council of New South Wales "approach has been to address bullying by promoting its real enemy - dignity and respect; because with these principles, bullying can not prevail. Bullying is ultimately about isolation - isolating workers and making them feel inadequate. If this is so, then the antidote to bullying lies in working together."

It is important, however, to acknowledge the positive work many Australian organisations have done with the intention of stamping out workplace bullying. "There are some employers who are doing a brilliant job of setting up policies, procedures, reporting lines, contact officers and so on to address the issue. So, whilst there are employers who don't respond well to reports of workplace bullying, there are certainly many employers who have embraced the idea that this is a serious occupational health and safety issue that they need to address," Mellington concluded.

What is the psychologist's role in prevention and intervention?

There is a huge role for psychologists now and in the future in terms of promoting the idea that occupational health and safety does not just relate to physical wellbeing; the psychological and physical factors are very much intertwined.

"People (targets of bullying) don't often recognise what's going wrong with them, they know they are feeling bad and effected and their health is deteriorating but they cannot actually put their finger on what's going on. And, that's often because of the subtleties of the workplace bullying," Mellington said. "It is common for a target of a workplace bully to internalise what's going on and to believe that they have caused the behaviour that they are being exposed to."

Field agrees, believing targets of severe workplace bullying are often not correctly diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, therefore they feel let down and confused by society's support systems, and as a result often internalise blame. "They (targets of workplace bullying) are not getting the appropriate treatment at work, by their insurance companies, or by the legal system. Many say targets of workplace bullying have not experienced a physical threat to their life therefore they can't experience post traumatic stress disorder."

Egan continues by highlighting how "many people stand by and observe (workplace bullying) and don't know what to do. Others fall in with the bully and follow. It hurts (the target) badly to find that they have been betrayed … (there is an) assumption that people around us will come to our aid if we are in trouble. And when it doesn't happen, people just seem to give up.

"That's the next step … what makes people follow and what makes other people just stand by and watch and not support? There are a lot of unanswered questions, it is a ripe area for research."