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With Debbie Francis’s review raising concerns about bullying and harassment in Parliament, members of Health Central’s ChalkTalks panel were asked whether they felt a review of other workplaces would produce similar findings.

Terry Buckingham, health and wellbeing manager for Fonterra New Zealand, thinks bullying is probably rife in Kiwi workplaces.

“None of us is immune to harassment and bullying in our organisations and if we think we are we’re probably kidding ourselves.”

Associate Professor Bevan Catley of Massey University backed this up with data from the Health Work Group’s most recent New Zealand Workplace Barometer, which includes 2018 data.

From a sample of 1400 employees drawn from across 25 organisations, 12 per cent reported bullying at work. Worryingly, 27 per cent of that sample reported significant depression.

“It’s well documented that bullying has really negative effects on people as well as those who have witnessed bullying – so it’s not just about those who have experienced bullying but it’s also about the colleagues around who are seeing this going on,” said Catley.

WorkSafe’s general manager strategy and engagement Jude Urlich said WorkSafe is also doing some research in this area. In collaboration with Massey University, they have studied seven occupational groups. Urlich said bullying is as high as 50 per cent in one of these groups. Furthermore, a lot of that bullying is also coming from customers.

“So that’s starting to tell us, New Zealand, we have a culture problem, and it’s quite deep. It’s in schools and its starting to play out in workplaces.”

Alex Beattie, social media and wellbeing researcher at Victoria University, thinks the problem is likely to be compounded by social media.

“Bullying in person can be awful; the difference with cyber bullying is that it’s captured in code and you can’t escape from that hurtful comment,” he said. “That hurtful comment can then enter a different channel and then enter the home space and this awful memory of work can follow you home. This is why I’m an advocate for creating clearer boundaries between work and home, rather than monitoring social media at work.”

Poor management practices are another contributing factor, said Catley. “Hierarchical bullying might be linked to management competencies, which can often be lacking if people have been recruited into managerial positions on the strengths of their technical competencies rather than their interpersonal skills.”

Often the difficulty is in the middle leadership level, he said, adding that it takes a lot of courage and we need to equip managers with the skills to confront senior managers.

E tū industrial leader Alastair Duncan said that the accessibility of HR comes into play as well.

“These days HR sits in the top tier of the organisation as part of the senior leadership team, says Duncan, and therefore is more focused on protecting the company than serving as an accessible contact point for employees.”

Urlich argued that the focus should be more on having a culture where those difficult conversations can take place between employee and their manager.

“Wouldn’t it be better to have a culture where a colleague can actually talk to their supervisor?” she said. “Connecting people into an adversarial approach may not be the best outcome for them.”

Buckingham emphasised the importance of acting quickly, regardless of the circumstances.

“What’s the best outcome for the worker here? Act promptly because delays cause anxiety.”

“The best protection is elimination,” said Urlich, “and the best method of elimination is creating a positive workplace culture.”

“One of the challenges that we find is that harassment and bullying is on a spectrum. We’re all pretty clear when something needs to go to the police, yet many workplaces when dealing with allegations of bullying and harassment they frame it within employment relationship issue.”

Even so, Urlich thinks we’re making progress.

She said the Francis Review is a “positive step for a group of employers to seek to identify the hazard and to identify some solutions”.

“I think it’s really important for other employers to think and grapple with what might seem quite a scary topic for them, but employers generally are starting to develop a bit more maturity in this space.”

An audience member raised the point that in many New Zealand workplaces there exists an inability to call out our peers, even when it comes to bullying-type behaviours. She cited a ‘Don’t Walk By’ initiative in Australia that passes on responsibility to co-workers or passers-by to call out the behaviour and said that calling out bullying is effectively everyone’s responsibility.

Indeed, Urlich believes the issue stems well beyond the workplace.

“Society needs to stand up and take some responsibility and start having a conversation,” she said. “We have road rage, supermarket rage, domestic violence, bullying at work – what is that telling us? As a society we need to talk about it.”

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