Like any other physical health and safety risk, psychological health risks from bullying, harassment and other inappropriate workplace behaviours must to be managed.
Such behaviours can have a significant negative impact on individuals and the workplace. They can occur wherever people work together and in all types of work situations, and everyone has a responsibility to ensure they do not occur.
Persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) can take steps to prevent inappropriate workplace behaviours such as bullying from occurring and responding quickly if they do. The longer such negative behaviour continues, the harder it becomes to repair working relationships and the greater the risk to health and safety.
Of major concern is workplace bullying, which is repeated and unreasonable behaviour that victimises, humiliates, intimidates or threatens a worker or group of workers, thereby creating a risk to health and safety. A single incident of unreasonable behaviour is not workplace bullying, however it may be repeated, become persistent or escalate over time and so should not be ignored.
Safe Work Australia’s national workplace bullying guide for employers explains:
- what is and isn't workplace bullying
- how bullying can occur
- how to identify and manage the risks, such as monitoring incident reports and patterns of absenteeism, and developing anti bullying policies and procedures
- how to respond to allegations
- how to conduct an investigation into allegations of inappropriate workplace behaviours.
PCBUs can help manage the risks by:
- developing an appropriate behaviours policy in consultation with workers (find an example on page 26 of the employer’s guide)
- ensuring workers are aware of the grievance reporting process
- adopting a process for dealing with complaints
- providing educational information and support.
A complementary worker's guide explains:
- where to seek advice
- what steps to take if a worker thinks inappropriate behaviour is occurring in their workplace
- what to do if a workplace bullying report has been made against you
- new legal provisions which allow the Fair Work Commission to consider individual applications to stop bullying in workplaces.
Bullying is a serious issue in workplaces across Australia and a risk factor for depression, anxiety and suicide. It doesn't just hurt those involved. The wider workplace also feels the effects through lost productivity, increased absenteeism, poor morale and time spent documenting, pursuing or defending claims. It’s estimated to cost Australian organisations between $6 billion and $36 billion a year.
We often think about bullying as an individual or interpersonal issue. However, beyondblue research shows that broader environmental factors, such as poor organisational culture and a lack of leadership, are in fact the main hazards. The most effective way to stamp out bullying is to stop it before it starts. This means creating a strong, consistent approach to preventing inappropriate behaviours from escalating, and fostering a positive, respectful work culture where bullying is not tolerated.
Examples of behaviour, whether intentional or unintentional, that could be considered workplace bullying include, but are not limited to:
- abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments
- aggressive and intimidating conduct
- belittling or humiliating comments
- unjustified criticism or complaints
- spreading misinformation or malicious rumours
- practical jokes or initiation ‘ceremonies’
- pressure to behave in a particular manner
- repeatedly displaying offensive material
- deliberately excluding someone from work-related activities or events
- withholding information that is vital for effective work performance
- deliberately setting unreasonable timelines, constantly changing deadlines, too much or too little work
- repeatedly setting tasks unreasonably below or beyond a worker’s skill level
- denying access to information, supervision, consultation or resources to a worker’s detriment
- changing work arrangements such as rosters and leave to deliberately inconvenience.
Phone SafeWork SA on 1300 365 255 or contact the Fair Work Commission. The most appropriate agency will depend on the nature of the complaint, the jurisdiction and the desired outcome.
What to do: Employers
It is not bullying when you carry out, in an appropriate manner, reasonable management actions such as:
- performance management processes
- disciplinary action for misconduct
- informing a worker about unsatisfactory work performance or inappropriate work behaviour
- asking a worker to perform reasonable duties in keeping with their job
- maintaining reasonable workplace goals and standards.
However, if these actions are not conducted in a reasonable manner, they could still be considered bullying behaviour.
Any report of workplace bullying or other inappropriate behaviour should first be raised within your workplace. You should make reasonable attempts to resolve the matter internally through an informal or formal process (where available) before referring to external agencies for assistance. Refer to page 28 of the employer’s guide for a flowchart on responding to workplace bullying.
What to do: Workers
If you reasonably believe that you have been bullied or harassed at work you need to:
- keep records of specific incidents, dates/times and any witnesses
- speak with your manager/supervisor, health and safety representative (if you have one) or union representative (if you have one)
- keep records of who you spoke to and when
- detail what actions have or have not been taken by you and your PCBU to resolve your complaint.
Where mediation and conciliation have failed, you may apply to the Fair Work Commission for assistance. If appropriate, the Fair Work Commission can make an order to stop the workplace bullying. The Commission’s anti-bullying jurisdiction does not cover all Australian workers, for example those employed by local or state governments, or PCBUs that are sole traders.
The national workplace relations tribunal’s jurisdiction is limited to preventing workers from being bullied at work. It cannot issue fines or penalties and cannot award financial compensation. Their focus is on resolving the matter and enabling normal working relationships to resume.
Our role is to ensure that PCBUs and workers meet their obligations under work health and safety laws. We will prioritise all psychological risk complaints according to the severity of the risk. However we cannot act on complaints if there is no evidence to prove the allegations. We will:
- confirm if the complaint has merit under the legal definitions
- determine if the PCBU has taken appropriate measures or actions
- ensure that the hazards are suitably controlled
- issue statutory notices for breaches of work health and safety laws, if required.
We cannot take sides and we do not:
- advocate for an individual, provide legal advice or counselling
- mediate between the workplace parties involved
- secure an apology
- become involved in the details of a workplace conflict
- order a PCBU to discipline an alleged bully, remove them from the workplace or terminate their employment
- issue an order to stop the bullying
- assist with unfair dismissals, wage disputes or other employment-related matters
- handle ReturnToWorkSA claims or any other form of compensation.
Fair Work Commission
for workers, in a constitutionally covered business (e.g. Pty Ltd), reasonably believes that he or she has been bullied at work, they can apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop the bullying. The Commission can only deal with applications for an order to stop bullying if a worker is bullied while they are still employed at the workplace.
Fair Work Ombudsman 13 13 94
works with employers, workers and the community to educate and enforce through workplace investigations, compliance notices and litigations
Equal Opportunity Commission 8207 1977
provides an independent complaint handling service to help workers address issues of sexual harassment or discrimination (based on issues such as disability, race, sex, age, sexuality, religion, caring responsibilities, pregnancy or marital status). They do not act as advocates.
South Australian Employment Tribunal 8207 0999
provides mediation, alternative dispute resolution and support to people (and their representatives) involved in employment-related disputes
ReturnToWorkSA 13 18 55
provides information and a complaint resolution service for employers and workers and/or representatives on procedures, rights and obligations
provides employer members with advice, training, mediation, support and specialist consultancy services
SA Unions 8279 2222
provides information, training, advocacy, support, mediation and conciliation, investigation and access to alternative dispute resolution to all union members. The SA Unions Young Workers Legal Service provides free legal advice to workers under the age of 30 years
Traineeship and Apprenticeship Services
provides information, advice and support to employers, and trainees and apprentices (and their parents and guardians, if they are aged under 18) who are engaged on training contracts
WorkReady (Apprenticeships and Traineeships) 1800 673 097
information, advice and support to both employers and trainees, apprentices (and their parents and guardians, if they are under 18 years of age) who are engaged on training contracts
Working Women's Centre 1800 652 697
provides resources, information, support, training and advocacy for working women. Resources, some training and consultancy are available for organisations wanting to implement appropriate workplace behaviour strategies
Safe Work Australia’s authoritative guide Work-related psychological health and safety: A systematic approach to meeting your duties describes how to build a psychologically healthy and safe workplace by identifying, assessing and controlling risks to workers’ mental health. It gives a step-by-step process for managing psychological injury, intervening early and taking preventative action to stop workers becoming ill or sustaining a psychological injury.
Preventing psychological injury under work health and safety laws, Fact sheet, Safe Work Australia
Psychologically safe and healthy workplaces, risk management approach toolkit, Government of Western Australia, Department of Commerce
Heads up: practical information for employers and managers to help take action against workplace bullying
Heads up: practical information for small business owners about taking care of their own mental health
In case of emergency contact:
beyondblue 1300 224 636
24/7 advice and information from trained mental health professionals
national campaign to support and create mentally healthy workplaces. A joint initiative of beyondblue and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance
Headspace 1800 650 890
national youth mental health providing early intervention mental health services to 12-25 year olds
Kids Help Line 1800 55 1800
24/7 free confidential phone or online counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25
Lifeline 13 11 14
24-hour confidential crisis support service
MATES in Construction 1300 642 111
suicide prevention in the construction industry
Mensline 1300 78 99 78
for access to professional counsellors experienced in men’s issues
SA Mental Health Triage Service 13 14 65
24-hour service if you need support and have never accessed a mental health service before
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
free 24/7 nationwide counselling if you are at risk of suicide
GPs can also refer you to specialist psychologist services, such as a Mental Health Shared Care Plan.