Navigating bullying and harassment as an OHS issue

Alison Ross
Dealing with bullying, harassment or other workplace conflicts can be complex. We asked Alison Ross, the ANMF OHS Bullying and Discrimination Officer – Vic Branch, to share her thoughts on navigating the system.

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As the ANMF OHS Bullying and Discrimination Officer – Vic Branch, I provide advice to members about inappropriate workplace behaviours and assist members to resolve workplace issues. I am not a nurse or midwife, though I do have experience in the health care industry having worked as an occupational therapist. Prior to joining the ANMF I practiced as a workplace relations lawyer. 

When considering the members I represent — nurses, midwives and personal carers — I have seen complaints involving managers, colleagues in the same role, Doctors, surgeons and even CEOs. On rarer occasions patients, residents or family members can even be involved. There is no easily identifiable pattern.

It is well known that workplace bullying and inappropriate behaviour can be extremely harmful to an individual’s health and may seriously affect their ability to do their job. Physiological and psychological effects of bullying can include: 

  • high levels of stress
  • anxiety and/or panic attacks
  • loss of self-confidence
  • physical illness such as digestive problems and headaches
  • depression, and deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family and friends. 

Tragically, these behaviours can also lead to self-harm and suicide. 

Separate to the effects on an individual, bullying and inappropriate workplace behaviours can also have a significant impact on the workplace environment leading to low staff morale, decreased productivity, and high staff turnover. 

A word about language

Per WorkSafe Victoria, Workplace bullying is defined as repeated unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or group of employees that creates a risk to health and safety. 

Examples of behaviours that — if repeated — may constitute bullying include abusive or insulting comments, spreading rumours or misinformation, exclusion from workplace activities, and changing rosters to deliberately inconvenience someone. 

Harassment involves unwelcome behaviour that intimidates, offends or humiliates a person because of a particular personal characteristic such as age, gender, race, disability, sexuality or religion.

Discrimination is unfavourable treatment because of a personal characteristic protected by law.  Some of the perhaps lesser-known protected attributes under Victorian law include carer status, physical features and political belief. 

While these terms have legal definitions, they can be confusing as sometimes they overlap and may also be used interchangeably or sometimes incorrectly. Making this more complex is the fact that the legal definitions are not necessarily consistent with our everyday understanding. Harassment, for example is often used in the context of someone pestering another with multiple requests. The definition, however, requires a connection to an attribute protected by equal opportunity law. Ultimately this means that allegations and complaints may use incorrect language, which can have a detrimental impact on the overall outcome. 

All inappropriate workplace behaviours — whether or not they meet the above definitions — can cause problems in the workplace and can still lead to ill health. Therefore, they should be addressed. It is important, to be careful how a complaint is framed and not to use legally defined terms incorrectly. For example, quite often a set of allegations may be in breach of the relevant Code of Conduct because the behaviour is disrespectful but may not be unreasonable (when considering case law) and therefore is not legally classified as bullying. In such instances it is appropriate to frame a complaint as a Breach of Code of Conduct rather than using terminology such as bullying. 

Bullying and inappropriate workplace behaviour as an OHS issue

Workplace bullying is an occupational health and safety issue. As outlined in section 21 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (Vic) 2004, the employer has an obligation to provide a working environment that is safe and without risk to health, so far as is reasonably practicable. The definition of health specifically includes psychological as well as physical health. Bullying is a significant psychological hazard and a risk to the health and safety of an individual. 

Even though bullying plays out during interactions between individuals, research has proven that features of the job and factors in the work environment are the primary determinants. These psychosocial hazards are aspects of the design and management of work and its social and organisational context that have the potential to cause psychological harm. Specific psychosocial risk factors that can lead to bullying and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace include organisational change, negative leadership style, lack of appropriate work systems such as resources or lack of role clarity, and excessive workload. 

The ANMF supports a risk management approach — just like any other hazard, bullying risks should be identified, assessed, controlled and reviewed. Therefore, the issue must be considered at a broader systems or organisational level. It is not adequate or appropriate to merely reduce bullying to individual personality conflict or excessive sensitivity. Interventions that employers commonly adopt to prevent workplace bullying and inappropriate behaviours include having a policy and procedure for handling complaints, and education and training to staff on what bullying is and how not to behave at work. In addition, employers may recommend that staff engage in resilience training in an attempt to make them stronger and more able to handle challenging behaviours at work. 

Such methods alone do little to actually prevent bullying and inappropriate workplace behaviours. 

These measures sit low on the occupational health and safety hierarchy of control, which means that they aren’t as effective as environmental or organisational controls because they rely on the attitudes and actions of individuals. They should be used in conjunction with other control measures such as review and intervention around staffing levels and workloads, provision of clear job descriptions that outline roles and responsibilities and training for managers on providing feedback and performance management. 

Similarly, employers are more commonly introducing wellness strategies such as yoga, fruit bowls and mindfulness programs. While these initiatives can and do have a positive impact upon mental health and are excellent health promotion activities, they are not equivalent to compliance with the duty to provide a working environment that is safe and without risk to health. 

Management action

The relationship between management action and bullying is interesting. The definition of workplace bullying specifically excludes reasonable management action that is carried out in a reasonable manner. And in the context of workers’ compensation, a claim for an illness or injury will not succeed if caused by reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner. Examples of reasonable management action (provided it is carried out in a reasonable manner) may include:

  • setting reasonable performance goals, standards and deadlines
  • rostering and allocating working hours
  • transferring worker for operational reasons
  • informing a worker about unsatisfactory work performance or inappropriate behaviour or
  • deciding not to select a worker for promotion. 

Even though reasonable management action is not bullying, many bullying or inappropriate workplace behaviour complaints are against managers. I think it is human nature to become defensive if our performance is questioned and this process can lead to a perception of feeling targeted or bullied. 

Sometimes the process undertaken by managers is excellent, however, in many instances, it really isn’t done well.  And while it may not technically be ‘unreasonable’ and therefore not consistent with the definition of bullying, a poorly handled process can still create a risk to health and safety and lead to ill health.  

I am of the opinion that a lot can be done in this space in terms of prevention of inappropriate workplace behaviours. 

Sometimes in the nursing and midwifery industries, people are promoted into management roles because they are clinically excellent. While they may be the best clinician, they may not be the best people person and often do not receive appropriate training and education necessary for their new role. They can be placed in a situation where they are needing to manage former peers but have received little or any training on how to give constructive feedback, and how to manage unsatisfactory performance or conduct disciplinary processes. This can lead to a situation where such processes are not managed well which can lead to conflict and a poor working environment. 

What to do if you are subjected to inappropriate workplace behaviour
  • Obtain a copy of relevant workplace policies and procedures and review.
  • Approach the person if you are comfortable and if it is safe to do so. 
    • It is a good idea to plan what you want to say.
    • It can also be useful to seek advice on how to approach the conversation from services such as Nurse and Midwife Support — 1800 667 877.  
  • Keep diary notes including dates and names of any witnesses.
  • Speak to someone you trust.
  • Contact your Union.
  • Report/Make a complaint. 
    • I recommend seeking advice about the complaint itself and how it should best be framed.
    • There may also be other ways to deal with the concerns.
    • Ensure any complaint is written in objective language and describes specific examples in detail. 
  • Seek counselling support/medical advice.  

If you are concerned about inappropriate workplace behaviours at your workplace, it is recommended that you seek support from services such as Nurse and Midwife Support. For advice regarding your individual circumstances and pursuing a complaint ANMF members should first contact ANMF Member Assistance and also obtain the ANMF Bullying Pack which has detailed information. Visit our website to become an ANMF member.  

Reach out

Remember, you can contact Nurse & Midwife Support if you need support with this or any other issue. Just email us or give us a call on 1800 667 877.