Workplace bullying and harassment – a crucial conversation

Mark Aitken
Introducing the Autumn 2021 issue of our newsletter, Navigating workplace bullying & harassment.

Welcome to the Autumn 2021 edition of our newsletter. If you are being bullied and or harassed at work, I am deeply sorry for your experience. It should NEVER happen to anyone. I stand with all those committed to eradicating workplace bullying and harassment. Support is available. Please contact Nurse & Midwife Support no matter where you are in Australia, 24/7. Call us on 1800 667 877 or via email.

We also have also have a page dedicated to bullying and harassment where you can access a range of resources and tips designed to support you of you are experiencing bullying and or harassment.

Decorative image: Post-it note that says 'Let's Talk'

A national conversation

When I commenced the planning for this newsletter, I did not foresee that there would be a national conversation about workplace bullying and harassment, with allegations of inappropriate workplace behaviour and sexual assault in the national spotlight, and the growing momentum of the national movement to ensure that harassment and sexual assault against women stops. Australians are marching in the streets to protest the shocking treatment of women. People are rightly, angry, and outraged- we must have cultural, behavioural, and legislative change.

Workplace bullying and harassment is never OK. Organisations must have a zero tolerance to it. And yet we continue to hear reports of workplace bullying and or harassment from nurses, midwives, and students throughout Australia. In my nursing friendship group sadly, several have experienced workplace bullying. I know from personal experience the impact can be severe and the affects long lasting.

What actually constitutes bullying?

The Fair work Act 2009 states that  

“Workplace bullying occurs when:

An individual or group of individuals repeatedly behaves unreasonably to a worker or group of workers at work,


the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.”

What is workplace bullying? | Anti-bullying benchbook (

The Australian Human Rights Commission have useful information, fact sheet and tips that will support you if you are experiencing workplace bullying and or harassment.

Workplace bullying: Violence, Harassment and Bullying Fact sheet | Australian Human Rights Commission

They provide information for the supportive bystander- this refers to a witness to bullying and or harassment, someone who sees or knows what is happening to the victim and advocates for and or supports the person who is being bullied.

What you can do to stop bullies - Be a supportive bystander: Violence, Harassment and Bullying Fact sheet | Australian Human Rights Commission

Despite legislation prohibiting workplace bullying it continues to occur and people continue to suffer because of its impact.

What to do if you find yourself being bullied

In 2020 I spoke to Robert Fedele, a journalist at the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Journal, he wrote an excellent article which I highly recommend reading in full. Part of the article included, my 5 top tips to support those experiencing workplace bullying, which are:

  1. Get help and support as soon as you can. If you feel you are being bullied get help and support sooner rather than later. Talk to a trusted colleague, friend, family member or call us at Nurse & Midwife Support for immediate support. 
  2. Document the bullying. It is important to document the experience. Keep a file note, keep a journal note or document what happened. Be careful not to accidentally leave the documentation at work where it may fall into the wrong hands. 
  3. Practice self-care to help you cope. Continue to engage in self-care strategies that keep you healthy, well and resilient. People who are bullied and or harassed at work may stop doing the things that keep them well. You may feel stressed, unhappy, and unwell and stop exercising, have inadequate sleep, stop eating nutritious food and doing all the things to keep you well. 
  4. Know your rights and responsibilities. If you are called into a meeting around the bullying claims, it is important to know your rights and responsibilities. Consider taking a support person with you.  Do not isolate yourself, because being withdrawn and isolated yourself can lead to poor mental health.
  5. Keep perspective. It is a terrible thing that has happened to you, but it is just one part of your life. It is not your whole life, immerse yourself in gratitude and celebrate those things in your life that replenish you. Remind yourself, this is not your whole life, and will not go on forever. 
A widespread concern

In preparation for the newsletter, I spoke to nurses, midwives and students who have been bullied and harassed at work and experts on bullying and harassment and its prevention. Unfortunately, I did not need to look far to hear about incidents of workplace bullying.

I also read much of the extensive research on bullying and harassment in the nursing and midwifery professions. Common themes emerge including the devastating impact on health and wellbeing, detrimental impacts on workplace culture, disruption to careers, the stress placed on personal and family life, and the impact on the care of those by a stressed and challenged workforce. I met many nurses and midwives who wanted to share their experience of workplace bullying and harassment in the hope that it would support others.

The human face

At the heart of it bullying has broad reaching effects on people and their workplaces, we are so grateful to Rachael, a midwife who has kindly shared her story on our podcast about the impact of workplace bullying as a graduate and how a supportive educator and the human resources department supported her to navigate the complexity of emotions and the immense impact on her life. Rachael fortunately recovered and is now thriving in her career as a midwife.

On part two of the podcast, I speak to experienced mental health nurse Tessa Moriarty who tells her story of workplace bullying. Tessa reports that part of her healing has come from sharing her story. Read her story and listen to Tessa on the podcast.

Our professional obligations

The Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia code of conduct for nurses and code of conduct for midwives 3.4 on bullying and harassment requires nurses and midwives not to engage in bullying and or harassment at work. Both codes state:

“When people repeatedly and intentionally use words or actions against someone or a group of people, it causes distress and risks their wellbeing. Nurses/Midwives understand that bullying and harassment relating to their practice or workplace is not acceptable or tolerated and that where it is affecting public safety it may have implications for their registration.”

So why don’t some nurses or midwives understand this or adhere to it? This is a complex question with no easy answers. During my 37 years in the profession, I have known of and managed incidents of workplace bullying and or harassment. As I continue to ponder this question and as part of my quest for answers on the podcast Your Health Matters I speak to Karen Gately, HR consultant from Corporate DOJO who describes the unconscious bully. Listen to our podcast for more information.

I am glad that some nurses, midwives, and students can now tell their story and be heard as part of their recovery. If you have a story to tell about your experience with workplace bullying and or harassment, please email me.

The responsibilities of those in leadership

Dr. Moira Jenkins, the Director of Aboto, completed a PhD which examined workplace bullying and harassment from several different perspectives. She has written a book and has published extensively on the topic and has spoken at a number of national and international conferences. Dr Jenkin’s article, Workplace Bullying: An Adaptive Leadership Challenge, outlines that organisational governance and leadership that takes workplace bullying and harassment seriously is a major component to ensuring there is a zero tolerance to it.

Dr Jenkins states:

“the organisations that thrive will be those that signal the intolerance of poor behaviours at all levels of the hierarchy, and reinforce respectful discourse, and a collaborative approach to leadership."

I highly recommend that you read the full article and take some time to consider the questions she poses and how your organisation and your leadership style works within this frame.

When is it not bullying?

Some workers think that they are being bullied when they are being performance managed at work. Reasonable management action conducted in a reasonable manner does not constitute workplace bullying.

Your manager can make decisions about poor performance, take disciplinary action, and control the way work is carried out

Talking to a trusted person may assist you to make sense of your perception of being bullied.
Karen Gately has written an informative book for managers- The People Manager’s Toolkit, a practical guide to getting the best from people. In Chapter 6- Managing performance, Karen provides information and tips that support managers to approach performance issues by adhering to your local performance management procedures, providing effective feedback and being fair. Karen argues that effective performance management requires three essential elements:

  • clarity
  • coaching,
  • and accountability.

There is no doubt workplace bullying and or harassment is terrible and harmful. It can be a complex issue with devasting consequences for those who experience it. At Nurse & Midwife Support we are committed to doing all we can to bring an end to it and supporting those who experience it. Reach out if you need support. Your Health Matters.

Mark Aitken RN
Stakeholder Engagement Manager