15 Jan 2013
It is likely that most working New Zealanders will, at some time, be exposed to workplace bullying, either directly or as observers.
Director of the New Zealand Work Research Institute Professor Tim Bentley says what can sometimes be mistaken for harmless fun can in fact be counterproductive, with the ill-effects often extending way beyond those immediately involved.
Workplace bullying is a damaging, debilitating and costly problem for both the target and the organisation. Often mistaken for ‘tough management’, bullying is never an appropriate response to stress or pressures in the workplace, nor is it a suitable means of performance management.
A Health Research Council-funded study led by Professor Bentley examined the level of bullying experienced in New Zealand organisations from the health, education, travel and hospitality sectors.
The study found that nearly one in five employees from their sample of 1,734 participants had experienced bullying regularly during the past six months.
In line with other studies, the research found that targets of bullying reported higher levels of stress, lower emotional wellbeing, lower performance, and higher absenteeism and turnover intention than non-targets.
Witnesses to bullying reported similar consequences, demonstrating the ripple effect of bullying at work.
A follow-up survey of 252 occupational health and safety practitioners by the same researchers found that many organisations have a poor understanding of workplace bullying and that it was common for organisations to have no effective workplace bullying management strategies in place.
This finding, together with that of the prevalence study described above, suggests the need for clear guidance for New Zealand employers from government, and legislative protection for employees who suffer as targets of bullying – particularly where they cannot be confident that the organisation will support them if they report it.
To date, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has released no detailed guidelines to better inform organisations of what bullying is and how it may be prevented, (although it is understood that these are in preparation).
New Zealand’s existing legislation fails to provide adequate protection for targets of bullying, lagging well behind that of the UK and Australia – neither the Employment Relations Act nor the Health and Safety in Employment Act were produced with bullying in mind and neither are fit for purpose in this regard.
The New Zealand Work Research Institute, together with the Healthy Work Group at Massey University and a range of government and industry stakeholders, is currently considering what is needed if workplace bullying is to be better understood within organisations and then managed effectively.
What can be done?
One conclusion is that the MBIE should consider coming into line with other more progressive countries and produce an Approved Code of Practice that provides clear direction for employers about how best to manage bullying in their organisation.
Indeed, recent media stories regarding bullying suggest that managers and staff still have a poor understanding of what represents acceptable and unacceptable behaviour within the workplace, while senior management still tends to back the bully and targets end up with no option but to escape the harmful impacts by quitting.
Improved direction from government is required urgently to ensure that such cases either don’t arise in the first place or are managed more effectively when they do.
Further research by the New Zealand Work Research Institute and its partners will continue to examine workplace bullying prevention activity within high risk sectors and will seek to evaluate the effectiveness of different interventions to control bullying in those sectors.