“People are capable of great good. And people are capable of great evil.”
This is Australian lawyer Josh Bornstein, national head of Employment Law at the Maurice Blackburn legal firm, talking about bullying in Australian workplaces.
It’s widespread. It’s a whole toxic culture of oppression that destroys lives, that damages not just the victims but those who witness bullying behaviour and the perpetrators themselves.
Working carers are often the victims of workplace bullying. Too vulnerable to stand their ground and speak out against oppressive practices, they often endure overt and covert harassment, sometimes on a long-term basis.
Research indicates that one in every two Australian employees will be subjected to bullying at some time. Forty per cent of the victims will suffer the abuse early in their careers. Thus, the cyclical nature of the abuse culture: today’s victim may well become tomorrow’s bully.
The above statistics were from a study by the University of Wollongong which found that up to seven per cent of study respondents had been bullied in the previous six months.
An earlier study at Griffith University estimated workplace bullying cost the Australian economy between $6 billion and $36 billion annually. And that was in 2001, 16 years ago.
Most complaints not investigated
“The complaints are pretty universal all over the country. In the case of workplace bullying, the occupational health and safety watchdogs aren’t adequate,” Josh Bornstein told Fairfax reporters working on a recent special report on workplace bullying.
“And why? One, because they don’t investigate most complaints. And, two, if they do, they’re handled poorly.”
Borstein says the cases that go to court and make headlines are just the tip of the iceberg. A very large percentage of bullying victims can’t afford the cost of litigation. “There’s a huge unmet demand for legal assistance for people who suffer workplace bullying,” he told Fairfax.
NSW Government launches bullying inquiry
One case that did make it to court has become a landmark. In October last year, a woman was awarded more than $1 million in a negotiated settlement after a concerted campaign of bullying rendered her incapable of ever working again. Her employer was the NSW Government.
Now, ironically, the NSW Government has launched a parliamentary inquiry into workplace bullying. It begins hearings this month.
The $1 million payout victim (anonymous in news reports, but we’ll call her Mary) told Fairfax reporters she still didn’t know what provoked the campaign against her back in 2011.
“My career was going well. The agency had just paid for me to do a public service management course. I thought I was earmarked for senior management. And then this happened.”
Mary, then 41, had applied for another job within the government agency where she worked. She realised she’s made an error in filling out the form and withdrew her application. Nonetheless, her superiors, a man and a woman, insisted that she attend a meeting to explain.
But then when she sat down, they accused her of having an inappropriate relationship in the office. The next accusation was that she’d been passing off a colleague’s ideas as her own.
“I was blindsided by it,” Mary told Fairfax. “I couldn’t understand where the allegations were coming from. Had they given me some sort of notice or asked me in a less hostile environment, I could explain it. It was just incorrect. But they just kept going and going. I was sobbing and doubled over and they were still making allegations about information sharing.
“It just didn’t stop. At one point, they said we can put you in contact with the counselling service. I said I will absolutely need it after this meeting and still they went on. I don’t know why I didn’t walk out. It went on for ages.”
Campaign of humiliation
Mary was due to go on annual leave. When she returned, she found she’d been sidelined. She was parked at a desk outside the office of the team she used to manage and given nothing to do. She asked to be moved out of that department, but the campaign of humiliation was permitted to continue.
The legal firm of Carroll & O’Dea took on her case. During the five years it took to achieve a settlement, Mary and her children were kept under surveillance by agents of the insurance companies involved.
“Everything was challenged. I was pushed to the absolute limit. I’m surprised I’m still actually here.”
She said she’d hoped she’d start feeling better when her five years of ‘hell’ finally ended. “But I still don’t. I can never get those five years back. I can’t do what I used to do.”
A psychologist with 20 years’ experience in the field, Evelyn Field, says that the ‘caring’ professions are hotbeds of bullying. She sees teachers, nurses, social workers and doctors, she says, but very few accountants or engineers.
Josh Bornstein blames what he calls “command and control” workplace cultures, such models as the military and police and ambulance services, which, he says, “often produce pretty terrible bullying cases and with some catastrophic health consequences.”
Dr Carlo Caponecchia of the University of NSW agrees that bullying and harassment seemed to be endemic in “hierarchical organisations” such as emergency services and the military.
“Research shows that people in emergency services are not so much stressed by what they see on the road; it’s what happens to them back at the depot, back at the station, in relation to their colleagues, in the support they get or don’t get from the service by which they are employed.”
Devastating impact on mental health
This was the case for Cindy Modderman, who had been a police officer for 12 years before becoming an ambulance officer and who left the Ambulance Service in 2015. She had, by then, 25 years of frontline experience dealing with death and trauma.
“But the behaviour I was subjected to in the workplace had a far more devastating effect on my mental health than anything I’ve ever seen over that 25 years,” she told the ABC recently.
She had been subjected to four years of constant bullying and harassment from the time she started working in the ambulance control centre in Newcastle in 2011. The cruellest nastiness was a succession of taunts about her daughter who has an intellectual disability.
Her locker was broken into. On one occasion a phone-book was thrown at her head.
Complaining to management did her no good at all. The attitude at that level was that she must be flawed in some way.
“Management didn’t want to listen,” she said. “All they did was throw counter-allegations at me about things I had apparently done wrong.”
Evelyn Field sees bullying as a health risk, not just to the targets but to witnesses and perpetrators as well. But it’s the victims who pay the highest price: she cites increased risk of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal tendencies. There are physical effects too, she told Fairfax. “Two thirds put on weight, that’s pretty standard. A third would lose hair, a third to half would have headaches, blood-pressure problems, skin problems, gastro problems … Some people will go on to have fibromyalgia, cancer and heart attacks.”
Higher rates of depression, anxiety
Georgie Harman, CEO of beyondblue which sponsored the University of Wollongong study, agrees: “We know that those who experience and perpetrate workplace bullying have higher rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and health problems such as cardiovascular disease.”
She said such attempts as had been made to deal with the issue were achieving little.
“The strategies and policies tend to target individuals, including the perpetrator and the victim, not the organisation that allows the bullying to occur. We need to be targeting the organisations where there is a culture of bullying and to be empowering employees through communication.”
The bottom line is that there are people who get off on humiliating others. They inflate their own egos by belittling other people. They feel good when they can make somebody else feel bad.
Josh Bornstein sums it up like this: “You can try to find very sophisticated reasons for workplace bullying,” he told the ABC. “But sometimes it’s about just something as banal as personal dislike or jealousy, and then a desire to bring someone down.”
It’s very likely that many witnesses appearing before the parliamentary inquiry will advise that change has to come from the top. Evelyn Field concludes: “At the end of the day bullying is about poor management and a toxic culture. The fish rots from the head down.”
If you are being bullied, harassed or discriminated against because of your race, sex, age, sexual orientation, religion or because you have a disability or are pregnant you can contact the Australian Human Rights Commission. Call 1300 656 419
The Commonwealth Fair Work Ombudsman can provide information and advice about Australia’s workplace rights and rules and the protection you have against harassment and discrimination. Call 13 13 94.
SafeWork NSW can provide advice and help if you are experiencing workplace bullying. Call 13 10 50.