As a manager, I spent years prioritising the art of managing my team members’ safety. While it was a managerial responsibility required by law, the last thing I ever wanted to do was to have to call a family member and tell them that someone they loved was injured at work, either seriously or not. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t feel like a number of those team members were listening and very occasionally something more serious, but thankfully not fatal, would occur.

No matter what role we have in an organisation, we have a legal responsibility to ensure others are not at harm from our action or inaction. Unfortunately, when it comes to workplace bullying, selling the safety message becomes harder. The causes of psychosocial illness and their associated consequences can be hidden from view or delayed in appearing. As a general rule, we don’t understand workplace bullying and it’s impact.

How can we be responsible for ensuring anyone’s health and safety when we don’t necessarily link the cause and effect or understand it at all?

What does the law say?

Most, if not all, of our employees look to us as managers to keep them safe at work. As employers, we have a legal responsibility to ensure that we provide safe and healthy workplaces. However, responsibility goes both ways. In both the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 and Victoria’s Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, all workers or employees have an obligation to:

  • Take reasonable care for his or her own health and safety;
  • Ensure that his or her actions or omissions do not create a risk to the health and safety of others; and
  • Comply or cooperate with any reasonable instruction, policy or procedure that is to protect health and safety in the workplace.

Under the Acts, there are penalties for non-compliance. In 2006, Brodie Panlock ended her own life after having been the target of workplace bullying. Brodie had been repeatedly subject to taunts, criticism, name-calling and physical harassment including one instance where she had fish sauce poured all over her. Her three colleagues who perpetrated the behaviour were individually fined $45000, $30000 and $10000 each. The café owner was individually fined $30000 for having tacit approval of the bullying behaviour, with an additional $220000 fine to his business. The fines handed out were amongst the highest penalties awarded in Victoria under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

While not workplace bullying, a car dealership employee was recently fined $9500 over the death of a colleague who was hit by a vehicle and dragged underneath when the driver accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake. Regardless of employment position, we all face consequences should we not act to protect the health and safety of others.

Workplace bullying – The invisible health and safety risk

Workplace bullying remains a relatively invisible health and safety risk. We can all see a cause and effect of a physical risk and injury. When we trip over a box left in the middle of the floor we can see swelling, bruising, hobbling and/or lacerations. We usually then whisk that person to a doctor for treatment.

However, psychosocial injury from workplace bullying is harder to identify. Crying at work, which could be a sign of psychosocial injury, is something associated with weakness and embarrassment, so it becomes hidden and relegated to the dark corners of an office (if in the office at all). When we can no longer cope, the accumulation of stress and anxiety can emerge in varying ways well after the multiple incidents that we, as human beings, have been subject to. This creates a distancing of cause and effect.

Workplace culture equally has it’s place in keeping workplace bullying hidden. Research by Heads Up reported that 48% of employees felt their workplace was mentally unhealthy. As a result, those employees reported that they are less likely to disclose to their workplace if they are experiencing a mental health condition. Nor would they seek or offer mental health support in the workplace. Based on this research, to keep ourselves safe nearly half of us are more likely to keep any sign of workplace mental health risk to ourselves.

Working Towards Joint Responsibility

We can change our thinking to create joint responsibility for preventing the psychosocial health and safety impacts of workplace bullying. In the 1990s, how many of us had completed an ergonomic assessment of our workstation? Now they are a standard approach to managing risk in workplace health and safety.

That being said, the changes require us to take action. Creating a culture that allows people to feel safe to raise and discuss risks to their mental health is a key step. It allows an employee the opportunity to say they are at risk by the way they are being treated and an appropriate adjustment can then be made. It begins the process of awareness.

To know we are doing harm, we must be trained to understand what the harm is and what causes the harm. Having the knowledge allows us to alter our behaviour and act accordingly to prevent the harm.

Yet, it doesn’t doesn’t stop with training. Our organisations need to have strategies to appropriately address workplace bullying. The message needs to be clear that we all have a role to play in ensuring bullying doesn’t thrive in our workplaces. This is vital for management and prevention. They must be built into workplace systems to be successful.

These are only a few key steps we can take in creating an environment where everyone has responsibility for workplace psychosocial health and safety. Without them, we can continue to pretend we can shirk our responsibility. That is until the law catches up with those of us that allow workplace bullying to go too far.