Bullying proving to be a costly exercise

Workplace bullying: Always a concern, and higher education is not immune.
Workplace bullying: Always a concern, and higher education is not immune.

Workplace bullying is a growing concern and the higher education sector is no more exempt from its effects than is any other workplace.

There are lots of different ways of looking at workplace bullying, but what is clear is that it is a costly exercise. BeyondBlue research showed that 50 per cent of all Australian workers experienced workplace bullying at some point in their careers and of these, 40 per cent experienced the bullying early in their careers.

In this context, bullying is identified as repeated, unreasonable behaviour towards workers that creates risk to health, safety and wellbeing (social/emotional, physical, health etc). It may include verbal abuse, hurtful remarks, making fun of another person, sexual harassment, humiliation, isolation, playing mind games, intimidation, assigning pointless or impossible tasks, deliberately changing work hours in ways that make work difficult, withholding information needed to do the job, and micro-managing work.

Employers have a responsibility under Occupational Health and Safety and anti-discrimination legislation to ensure the workplace is safe. Not appropriately addressing bullying is a failure to meet these legal requirements.

Bystanders also have a responsibility to address bullying behaviours they witness. Those who experience bullying are counselled to keep good written records of each incident, and to seek support from a trusted friend/colleague or formal support services.

Bullying is robbing our students of high quality learning experiences. Should that concern us all? Yes indeed it should.

The way in which we understand bullying behaviours impacts on the kinds of supports offered by employers. For a long time, bullying was identified as arising from particular personality types: people who had limited social intelligence were thought more likely to be perpetrators because they gained feelings of power and superiority through bullying others. Research suggests 1 in 25 people in the workplace have limited social intelligence and are thus at risk of becoming bullies. Their bullying behaviours impact not only on the targets but on those around them; recent research suggests that 1 per cent of the workforce can have a detrimental impact on 25 per cent of the entire workforce resulting in a 15 per cent decrease in overall productivity.

When bullying is understood as an issue belonging to individuals with limited social intelligence, approaches for addressing bullying are focused on social skills training. Unfortunately, such training has rarely been demonstrated as effective in reducing bullying, particularly as much of the behaviour is indirect, subtle and not easily identifiable. Targets often don’t realise they are being bullied until they see the results: former friends avoiding them, rumours of their incompetence impacting on work allocation, whispers and jokes made behind their backs. None of these are actions which can be directly confronted so the target feels increasingly helpless; increasing stress levels have negative impacts on work performance further reinforcing negative perceptions held about them, increasing their social isolation in the workplace and decreasing their self confidence.

An alternative view of bullying is that the way our workplaces are structured in this neoliberal world creates space for bullying behaviour, and that many such behaviours are actually rewarded. A classic example is the growing micro-management that is impacting on workers around the country. Managers who interfere more and more in the work undertaken by their employees are perceived by their supervisors as fulfilling their accountability role. As academics, for example, we are no longer allowed to take our legislatively mandated annual leave unless we nominate who is covering our work in our absence, nor are we allowed to travel locally off campus to attend meetings or undertake research without that off-campus time being approved and cover being arranged.

Why am I writing about this in a column about education? Because education is the foundation of our society: what our children learn and how they learn from us is fundamental in shaping future generations. However, educators who are bullied, individually and systemically, are not able to function at full capacity. Bullying is robbing our students of high quality learning experiences. Should that concern us all? Yes indeed it should.