Three key strategies to get on with your boss


Learning to manage your relationship with your boss is an important skill.

ryan holiday

Read more: Three key strategies to get on with your boss

The new ‘open office’ – activity-based working


Activity-based learning office layouts are the way of the future for modern offices.


activity based working

Read more: The new ‘open office’ – activity-based working

Bullying in the workplace special report


“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.

Breastfeeding mums at work


Miriam is a friend and a single mother, presently on maternity leave from her job as a mid-level manager in information technology.



Miriam is a friend and a single mother, presently on maternity leave from her job as a mid-level manager in information technology.

She now faces a heartbreaking situation. Her two-months-old son, Jamie, born six weeks prematurely, has respiratory and developmental difficulties that require her constant attention.

What is she to do at the end of her maternity leave time? To employ a properly qualified nurse to look after Jamie while she’s at work would cost a lot more than she can afford. Must she abandon her career and become a welfare mum?

A couple of weeks ago, there was a glimmer of hope for Miriam and other mothers trapped in similar situations.

Baby breast-fed during Cabinet deliberations

It came in no less a place than the Federal Government’s Cabinet Room, not through a proposal for legislation but because a Cabinet Minister brought her baby son with her into the meeting and actually breast-fed him during the Cabinet’s deliberations.

And before that, in June, a Greens Senator, Larissa Waters, made headlines when she breastfed her baby while the Senate was in session and in fact moved a motion while she was doing so.

Maybe these two occurrences bespeak a change in attitude that might spread to the wider workplace environment. And it is attitudes that need most to be changed, not matters of practicality, as Revenue and Financial Services Minister Kelly O'Dwyer demonstrated.

She fetched baby Edward’s cot into her office and installed it alongside her desk and used headphones so she could work the telephones while breast-feeding or holding him in her arms.

CEO will tell his executives it can be done

This was the scene that greeted the CEO of one of the major banks when he turned up at Ms O’Dwyer’s office for a meeting. “He was surprised, but not in a bad way,” she told Fairfax Media.

In fact, the CEO agreed to having photographs taken and said he’d use them to demonstrate to his own executives that it could be done.

“I’ve always been pretty efficient with my time,” said Ms O’Dwyer, who was also Acting Treasurer at the time.

Edward set a precedent for his presence at Cabinet meetings as a newborn, attending by teleconference from Melbourne. Then, at the ripe old age of three months, he made his ‘live’ debut in the Cabinet Room in Canberra and received a cuddle from the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

Ms O’Dwyer has an advantage few other women enjoy. Her husband has been able to take extended leave to take care of Edward and his older sister, Olivia, who is two.

Miriam and others like her don’t have that way out of the work-care dilemma.

Ms O’Dwyer used the publicity surrounding Edward’s Cabinet meeting attendance to emphasise the need for the Liberal Party to pre-select women for ‘winnable’ seats.

She said it was ‘vitally important’ that women had role models in parliament: “Particularly women of different backgrounds and different experiences. I think that people need to see there is a career for them, and they can continue to be a mother or choose to be a mother.”

Surely the same principles should apply in all the work environment generally, not just in politics.

Dealing with fatigue in the workplace

Employers and workers need to be mindful of the impact of fatigue in the workplace.

Employers and workers need to be mindful of the impact of fatigue in the workplace.

The NSW Industrial Relations Commission has handed down a decision that sends a clear message that all parties must cooperate to guard against fatigue and ensure safety at work.

According to SafeWork NSW, fatigue is ‘a state of mental and/or physical exhaustion which reduces a person’s ability to perform work safely and effectively’. 

Research tells us that a lack of sleep (i.e. fatigue) has comparable affects to alcohol consumption:

  • 17 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.05
  • 21 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.08
  • 24-25 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.10
  • Between 0.05 and 0.08 blood alcohol content, every person suffers impairment in tasks requiring skills, vigilance and precision.
Fatigue in the workplace therefore needs to be carefully managed as all jobs require skills.

The case before the NSW Industrial Relations Commission (Grafton v Waverley Council (No.2) [2017] NSWIRComm 1020) was about Phillip Grafton, a full-time employee of Waverley Council.  During the day, he worked as a ‘Public Place Cleaner’. At night, Mr Grafton also worked full-time as a night-filler at Woolworths.

Mr Grafton injured his wrist and took extended time off work. He made a workers’ compensation claim, and through that process, Council became aware of his second job. They tried to get Mr Grafton to reduce his hours, but he refused. Council terminated his employment for serious misconduct; disobedience. He brought a claim for unfair dismissal to the Commission, which failed.

You can go and look up the case to see the Commission’s reasoning, but in short, the Commission sided with the Council in finding that the termination was not harsh, unreasonable or unjust.  

The Council’s directions to Mr Grafton to reduce his hours ‘were lawful because his work with Woolworths had the potential to conflict with his Council duties, in the sense of his ability to carry out those duties in a safe manner, without risk to himself and others,’ the Commission said.

The point about the case is that employers have a legal duty of care to protect the health and safety of all employees at work.

Had Mr Grafton been involved in an accident that caused harm to others, because he was fatigued, there could have been very serious consequences.

But workers also have some responsibility to ensure that their acts and omissions do not affect others.  Some personal responsibility needs to be taken and employees must cooperate with employers.