The management of employees is becoming increasingly complex. Whereas once mental health issues in the workplace were the responsibility of employees, ignored and/or brushed under the carpet with a “she’ll be right mate” approach, there is a greater expectation that employers are seen to be not only active, but proactive in both management and prevention.

Workplace bullying is one of these areas where this applies. It’s important that employers should not be providing therapy. That should sit with qualified professionals. However, employers need to understand approaches that ensure they don’t exacerbate either illness and the mental health impacts. As an employer, education is key to minimising risk of further injury and costly Workcover or legal cases.

The impacts of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying can have serious and long lasting impacts on those who have been targeted. Within the professional community there is debate as to whether bullying causes in post-traumatic stress disorder. However, there is research that indicates bullying at the very least results in significant trauma type symptoms. Research also indicates that bullying increases the risk of suicide ideation.

Safework Australia data indicates that of the 10776 serious mental health Workcover claims in 2019-20, that approximately one quarter are as a result of bullying and harassment. Since 2000-01, the average cost of claims has increased 222% to $45900 per claim with a lost employee time at work of 26.6 weeks. That’s an increase of 138% in the same time period. How much does that translate in costs of Workcover premiums, employing and training short term employees, and so on?

Employing a risk management approach

The above provides food for thought about how we approach bullying in the workplace. Ideally, we would stop it from occurring in the first place by creating a culture of psychological safety. Research indicates a positive culture and effective workplace systems can reduce the incidence of workplace bullying. But are we there yet and will we ever be able to completely eliminate the bullying risk?

Whatever the answer to this question, our risk management framework needs to be approached from two angles to be effective. Organisational and individual risk management. If your current approach only focuses an individual management, I recommend you use a organisational risk management framework to learn from an individual case and prevent it reoccurring.

Why is an individual risk management approach still important?

Until we have eliminated bullying, utilising both organisational and individual risk management strategies is important. It comes down to choosing the right approach for the situation you are faced with.

Bullying is a complex pattern of behaviours that occurs over a long period of time. The longer it continues, the greater the potential injury to that employee. Underlying that is a significant impact on functioning of, and clarity within, the human brain.

Have you ever noticed when talking to a bullied target, or if you have ever been targeted yourself, it can be hard to string events together and clearly understand what has occurred?

Insight to this is provided by Dr Amishi Jha with her research on focus and attention. Her research into the brain identifies there are three key threats to being able to focus. Stress, poor mood and threat. Employees who have been bullied, and potentially suffering from trauma like symptoms, can live in a state of high anxiety and threat to their existence. The threat dis not only direct attacks from the bully, but everything associated with that. This may be expulsion from the group (sometimes referred to as tribe), that provides us protection at a primal level. The threat may be loss of livelihood if seen to be the trouble maker or unable to continue to work; or loss of professional reputation and future career prospects.

It doesn’t matter whether the threat is real or perceived. Our brains doesn’t differentiate between the two before releasing chemicals including cortisol and adreneline. Our internal smoke detector has been triggered Seeing threat is how humans have survived throughout the centuries.

Rebuilding our framework with trauma informed practice

Given what we know about the impacts of bullying on an individual, a risk management framework starts with trauma informed practice.

Kezelman and Stavropoulos (2012) wrote:

“Trauma Informed Practice is not about the treatment of trauma or the symptoms, but rather a recognition that trauma experiences are a possibility for anyone”

It has five core principles:

  • Safety, an individual is provided physical, emotional, environment and cultural safety.
  • Choice, the individual has choice and control.
  • Collaboration, where decisions are made with the individual and power is shared.
  • Trustworthiness, where there is clarity, consistency and interpersonal boundaries.
  • Empowerment, finding opportunities to empower and build resources.

These principles need to form our starting point to minimise harm and prioritise safety when it comes to workplace bullying incidents and claims. The earlier you respond in this way, the sooner you minimise the costs, both to you employee and organisation.