Autumn Edition 2021

Edition 12 — Navigating workplace bullying and harassment

Welcome to the Autumn 2021 edition of the Nurse & Midwife Support Newsletter.

We have long planned to write an edition of our newsletter on bullying and harassment, as we understand the impact it can have on individuals as well as the workforce as a whole.

We know that it’s vital that we ensure any nurses, midwives and students that are experiencing bullying or harassment have ample resources available to them. This edition is packed full of articles and podcasts with personal stories and real world resources that anyone can use.

We hope you find some helpful resources in this edition and remember, if you need a hand just give us a call 1800 667 877 – Your Health Matters!
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Cover image: Tired nurse

In this issue...
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Workplace bullying and harassment – a crucial conversation

Our Stakeholder Engagement Manager Mark Aitken, introduces the newsletter and its purpose, clearly defining what is bullying and harassment and what isn’t. He also shares a range of incredible resources and tips for anyone navigating this difficult issue.

Speak up: A graduate midwife’s experience with bullying

Rachel, a registered midwife, shared her story with us about an experience she had with bullying in her graduate year, how she navigated it and what you can do if you find yourself in a similar experience.

The Voice to Call It Out

Tessa Moriarty, a credentialed Mental Health Nurse Consultant wrote about the mental health impact of bullying and her personal experiences.

Navigating bullying and harassment as an OHS issue 

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

Podcast Special: Bullying & Harassment

Episode 24: Workplace factors for bullying and harassment with Karen Gately

Mark speaks to Karen Gately, HR Consultant and Director of Corporate DOJO, to discuss the workplace factors that put people at risk of bulling and harassment, the role of leadership, ‘unconcious bullies’ and solutions to prevent or solve bullying in the workplace.

Episode 25: Workplace bullying and harassment – personal stories and helpseeking with Tessa Moriarty and Elle Brown

Tessa shares her personal experience of bullying in the workplace, how she dealt with it and what she has learnt. Then Elle and Mark discuss with her how NM Support can support people.

Workplace bullying and harassment – a crucial conversation
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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,

AND

the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.”

What is workplace bullying? | Anti-bullying benchbook (fwc.gov.au)

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

 

Speak up: A graduate midwife’s experience with bullying
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By the Nurse & Midwife Support Clinical Team 

Photograph of midwives assisting in delivery of baby

Rachel*, a registered midwife, shared her story with us about an experience she had with bullying in her graduate year:

In my graduate year as a midwife I worked with a senior midwife who was my manager who bullied other staff, mostly the junior midwives and especially targeted graduates. Let’s call her Beatrice*.

Beatrice’s behaviour was sometimes overt and at other times covert. She would not greet me, say hello, and at times would barely acknowledge my existence.

As a graduate midwife I understandably needed a lot of support — especially in the birthing suite — and I did not receive support from Beatrice in the way that I needed to learn and safely care for my patients. She would seem irritated when I would ask a question or for help, would not make eye contact with me, and would come into a room when assistance was required and act unprofessionally, seemingly annoyed that she had to help. She made her displeasure very obvious to the patient and her family.

On several occasions Beatrice spoke to me in a hostile way in the hallway of the birthing suite in front of other staff, accusing me of something that I did not actually do.

I began to feel increasingly anxious working with Beatrice. I was terrified to ask for support when I needed it. I felt humiliated and belittled by her cold and unfriendly attitude towards me. I was concerned that the dynamic could result in unsafe patient care, as she seemed resistant to assisting and giving support to ensure my patients were well taken care of.

Beatrice didn’t seem to like her job and was also not kind or caring toward patients. I noticed she treated other junior staff like this, but they were too afraid to speak up. I worried about going to work. The situation began to negatively preoccupy my state of mind outside of working hours. I had to literally force myself to ask Beatrice when I was unsure of something.

I knew it was not right to feel this way at a time when my learning experience was meant to be a positive one. I was worried the situation would begin impacting my mental health in a negative way, so I sought the advice of a supportive educator. They encouraged me to put in a formal complaint to HR.

I was terrified to do it! I knew Beatrice would find out I had complained about her, and I was concerned about how it would then affect us working together. At the same time, I knew if I didn’t do something that the behaviour would continue and other midwives who came after me in their graduate year would be subjected to her bullying.

I made a formal complaint, and it was investigated by HR. Eventually Beatrice was stood down temporarily from her role as an ANUM. I don’t know what other actions were taken as of course it was confidential between Beatrice and upper management but it appeared that there were a range of changes made.

I felt empowered by the experience and was relieved my complaint was taken seriously. I did not have to work with the bully again with her being my manager, and this made my work less stressful.

I encourage anyone experiencing bullying to speak up. It is important for your health and wellbeing — workplace bullying is not OK.

A shared experience

Rachel’s experience isn’t uncommon. Workplace bullying is not an infrequent occurrence in the healthcare sector. A 2016 report by Worksafe Australia found that there was a 9.7% rate of workers in all industries across the country experienced bullying. The report showed that people working in the health and community sector experienced the second highest incidence of bullying of all industries in Australia. 14.3% of health and community services workers experienced bullying nationwide during 2014–15. 

Bullying and harassment is not a new phenomenon in nursing. It is embedded in our history. Some studies have found that the rate of bullying in nursing is a high as 30%, with other studies finding the percentage to be 50–72%. Students and junior nurses are often targeted and are bullied more often than more experienced nurses. Clearly, this is a problem that may have significant and detrimental impact on health, wellbeing, and retention.

Possible impacts

Bullying may have a devastating and damaging impact on nurses, midwives and students and has been linked to general mental health problems, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), burnout, psychosomatic symptoms, burnout, and physical health issues such as cardiovascular problems.

A 2016 report into bullying in the health sector by the Victorian Auditor General’s office found that nurses and midwives who are the victims of bullying can experience: 

  • a loss of self-esteem

  • feelings of isolation

  • deteriorating relationships with colleagues, friends and families

  • thoughts of suicide and 

  • financial impacts. 

Nurses and midwives who have experienced bullying are more likely to consider leaving or actually leave the profession, have reduced work performance, increased time off work and a negative impact on patient safety outcomes. It is important that reports of workplace bullying, and harassment are taken seriously, and the impacts are not underestimated.

If you’ve experienced or witnessed bullying and would like to discuss the situation, we can help you assess your options for reporting or just offer a sympathetic ear. Give Nurse & Midwife Support a call on 1800 667 877 or email a support request

(*All names have been changed to protect privacy)

The Voice to Call It Out: The mental health impact of bullying – a personal experience
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by Tessa Moriarty

By the time nurse Tessa realised she was being bullied her mental and physical health had been negatively affected. This is how she dealt with it.

photo of nurse's eyes above mask

By the time I realised I was being bullied both my mental and physical health had been negatively affected. We were going through a turbulent organisational restructure that became the backdrop of an extended period of bullying by a senior colleague. 

I had problems sleeping and eating.  I had lost weight, dreaded going to work, had trouble concentrating, focusing on and completing tasks and I was often anxious and tearful.  At work I had lost my confidence, my enthusiasm and my voice to speak at all, let alone to tell my close colleagues what was happening to me.  

I avoided certain meetings and felt powerless to address (let alone change) that I was being bullied by someone in a senior executive role — someone in a position of power and influence in the organisation where I worked. 

I didn’t just avoid telling anybody else about the bullying. I struggled to admit it to myself. In hindsight I think I denied the reality of it because I felt ashamed that it was happening. I blamed myself rather than my bully. Also it was difficult to admit to because I convinced myself that I was being singled out because I wasn’t good enough at my job. 

Me, of all people.  I’d rarely lacked confidence before. I’d seen myself as a professional leader who was hard-working, fair, firm but generous. I had a strong work-ethic. I was often in the office before others and frequently last to leave.  I had the respect of my program colleagues and my immediate team.  I’d always been articulate and sure of myself at work.

I became someone who felt alone, isolated, unsure of my abilities and incredibly unsafe in the work environment.  My sense of esteem and efficacy plummeted.  The bullying introduced a pervasive sense of self-doubt across all of my work activity.  

I was subjected to humiliation in meetings, given unreasonable and unrealistic performance targets. In individual line management meetings, I was intimidated and cross examined about matters outside my role — matters that I had no responsibility for or knowledge of. I was made to feel incompetent and useless for not having the answers.  Frequently, I left the line-management meetings in tears. 

There were few people to trust and even fewer to reach out to.  I did, however, have enough psychological strength and the knowledge to seek out a meeting with Human Resources —though I believed that this was a risky thing to do.  Not for a minute did I trust that the conversation I had with the Human Resources staff would remain confidential.  I was careful not to disclose too much for fear of recriminations and the likelihood that the colleague who was bullying me would find out. 

I requested the support of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to manage the stress of the organisational restructure, rather than say out loud what was happening to me.
Thankfully, the EAP and my own external clinical supervision saved my mental health.  Not my job — I left some months later —but my mental and physical health and wellbeing. 

The impact of bullying — a serious workplace issue

Bullying is a serious issue in workplaces across Australia and a key risk factor for anxiety, depression and suicide. Workplace bullying doesn't just hurt those involved, either. The wider workplace also feels the effects through lost productivity, increased absenteeism, poor morale, and time spent documenting, pursuing or defending claims. It is estimated to cost Australian organisations between $6 billion and $36 billion a year.

Workplace bullying can affect people in a number of ways, including feelings of distress, anxiety, panic attacks or sleep disturbance, physical illness, muscular tension, headaches and digestive problems, reduced work performance, loss of self-esteem and feelings of isolation, deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family and friends, a sense of helplessness, hopeless and depression, feeling confused, guilty and ashamed and for some an increased risk of suicide.

While my own experience of being bullied did not make me feel suicidal, for some people bullying has been so detrimental to their mental health that suicide becomes the only way of making it stop.

Some jurisdictions are taking legal measures to recognise the connection between severe bullying and suicide. In 2011, Brodie's Law was introduced as an amendment to the Victorian Crimes Act 1958 which makes serious bullying an offence punishable by a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment. The law was introduced after campaigning by the parents of Brodie Panlock, a 19-year-old who ended her life after enduring ongoing humiliating and intimidating bullying by her co-workers at a café in Hawthorn, Victoria. 

Brodie’s death was a tragic reminder of the serious consequences and impact that bullying in the workplace can have on a person’s mental health. 

Myths and misconceptions

There are a number of myths and misconceptions about bullying from bullies are loners and have no friends to if you ignore it, it will go away to being bullied gives you character and victims of bullying bring it on themselves —  it’s their own fault.

When I was bullied, for a time, I felt it was my fault. Perhaps what my bully was saying — that I was not good enough at my job — was true. And perhaps that I felt so distressed about what was said to me was indeed a sign of my weakness. Furthermore, thinking this way, made me second-guess myself and question my actions. This had a negative effect on my self-esteem and self-efficacy. I lost confidence in what I was capable of and able to achieve. 

In the EAP sessions however and through my clinical supervision, I learned of course that this second-guessing and self-doubt was not healthy, not helpful, and not true.
The truth was: I was good at my job and had a proven track-record but my new boss was bullying me and giving me unreasonable tasks to complete with unrealistic timelines in which to complete them.  

Over the few months I was able to access EAP, I learned that the bullying wasn’t my fault but the fault of the person who was bullying me and the organisation and culture that created and facilitated it. 

If there is a loud and clear message I would like to offer from my bullying experience, it is this:

 

Bullying is never the fault of the person being bullied.

Longer term impacts

Being bulled took me from the workplace and the nursing workforce. At the time, leaving was the best option for my mental health and wellbeing. However, looking back, it should never have got to that. I now believe that the organisation in which I worked let me down and I became another workforce departure statistic.  That I couldn’t call out my bullying was also a reflection of the organisational workplace culture of the time.  Workplace bullying was played down and people were expected to grin and bear it — buckle up and get on with it.  

It took me a number of years to get over my experience of being bullied. Thankfully, my broad knowledge-base and skill meant I was able to take my career in other directions.  Some years later, I went back to work in similar service settings and took up comparable roles in other organisations.  However, what stays with me is an on-going caution and mistrust of organisational process and culture to truly prevent workplace bullying. 

Responsibilities of employers

Employers have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) to provide and maintain far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health and this includes mental health. There is limited evidence to show interventions after bullying has occurred are effective. Prevention is the key to creating a safe working environment. 

Back when I was bullied, there was less strident emphasis on the prevention of bullying and the importance of mentally safe workplaces. In addition, the workplace culture that allowed bullying to occur was widespread, not just within the workplace where I was employed, but virtually everywhere. Thankfully, things are changing. Today there is renewed attention to  the need for safer and mentally healthy workplaces. 

A word to managers

It can sometimes be difficult to manage an employee without them perceiving it as bullying, even when it is focused solely on their performance. As a manager myself, I’ve been through this a number of times and have supported other managers who have been accused of bullying. It can be a gruelling process. 

We should return to the definition of bullying to reassure ourselves and those we manage how it differs greatly from performance management. 

Bullying is behaviour that is repetitive and singles out a person with the purpose to humiliate, ridicule, undermine and treat less favourably and/or in unreasonable, unrealistic and inappropriate ways. 

Performance management is a process used to support a colleague to improve and develop their workplace practice and performance. It’s not just about an element of a person’s practice and performance requiring structured attention but should be used as an opportunity to support someone to develop skills and knowledge in areas where they are underperforming, relevant to their role. The aims of performance management should be mutually beneficial.

What can supportive bystanders do?

Bullying can affect the entire team. People who witness bullying of other colleagues may also find that their physical, mental and emotional health suffers. Researchers from Sheffield University’s Institute of Work Psychology found that witnesses of workplace bullying experienced an ongoing decline in their wellbeing at work, including depression, anxiety, and general ill health.  

When I was being bullied, I believe others were aware of what was happening. The ridicule and excessive demands would have been evident to others present in meetings and other discussions. However, no one spoke out or spoke to me privately outside those meetings about what they saw and heard.  So why didn’t anybody say anything to me? I think there are a couple of contextual factors. 

  1. The power imbalance. The bully was senior in the organisation. Calling out the bullying risked recrimination and perhaps opened my colleagues to being bullied themselves.

  2. The workplace culture. Our workplace permitted bullying and did not empower my colleagues to raise their voices in dissent against the boss. 

I understand the context that can make it extremely difficult to call out bullying. I still think calling it out can be one of the most powerful ways to stop a workplace bully in their tracks,  prevent workplace bullying from occurring and change the workplace that has all too often swept it under the carpet.
  
I’ve been a silent bystander too. In a different workplace, I witnessed bullying. I sat by, shocked at what I had heard and seen and struck by an impotence and fear to call it out.  Again, the unreasonable, inappropriate and humiliating behaviour — perpetrated by a bully in a role of authority, power and leadership within the organisation. Some of my colleagues did eventually call it out. I admire their courage. Though I understand what stopped me from doing the same, I still regret that I felt unable to. 

From what we are currently seeing, we still have much work to do, but looking back and comparing the culture in which I was bullied to that which I now see — I am encouraged. Not so much by the behaviour of those in roles of leadership and authority, but by the courage and the voice of those who are speaking out.

Finding a way to speak out is one of the most important things that people can do — whether they are witnessing or experiencing bullying. 

Speak to the person being bullied. 

Tell them what you see, what you hear and ask them how you can help — but don’t just stop there. Find someone you trust in the organisation and tell them about the bullying. If there is nobody you can trust, find someone else to tell, such as a union or other external body.

Make sure you tell the person that what you saw, what you heard was not okay. That what they are experiencing is not acceptable. It might seem obvious to you, but they really need it. 

Changing the culture of bullying in healthcare will take all of our commitment. If you’re not sure how to start, Nurse & Midwife Support can help you talk through some ideas — give them a call on 1800 667 877

Endnote

I am grateful to the Nurse and Midwife Support Service for the opportunity to write this piece about my own experience of being bullied and how it affected my mental health.  I also hope some of what I write gives both a voice of support to nurses, midwives and others who have bullied like me and a reminder to all of us that bullying like workplace safety – is everyone business.  

About Tessa Moriarty

Photo of Tessa MoriartyTessa Moriarty is a credentialed Mental Health Nurse Consultant with over 30 years experience across public, private and primary health care, mental health and drug and alcohol settings. She has worked in a variety of senior leadership and executive roles and is an experienced group facilitator, clinical supervisor and psychotherapist. Much of Tessa’s work in recent years has focused on supporting those working in clinical settings – providing individual and group clinical supervision and reflective practice. She also works as a mental health nurse consultant for Primary Health Networks and always tries to bring a humanistic approach to the clinical governance and service review projects she undertakes.

Tessa writes professionally as part of the roles and consultancy work that she does. More recently, she has turned to more creative writing and calls herself a lived experience writer. She believes in the healing capacity of writing for both those who write and read the written word.

Navigating bullying and harassment as an OHS issue
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by 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.

Illustrative photo of rock maze on beach

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.

Podcast Special: Bullying and harassment
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Content warning: this podcast contains information regarding bullying which may be unsettling for some people. Call us on 1800 667 877 if you would like to talk.

At Nurse & Midwife Support, we understand that those experience workplace bullying and harassment need support. The more well researched and informative resources that are available the better! In fact it’s such a broad topic that we couldn’t cover it in just one podcast episode, so we brought you two. This is part one of our two part series on workplace bullying and harassment.

Bullying in the workplace is never OK, but it is a reality for many. The experience can have a detrimental impact on health and wellbeing and may be related to long-term negative impacts.

In this special double episode of the podcast we discuss workplace bullying and harassment and what kind of support is available for those who experience it. 

Episode 24 cover: Photo of hospital hallwayEpisode 24: Workplace factors for bullying and harassment with Karen Gately

In the first episode, our host Mark Aiken speaks to Karen Gately, HR Consultant and Director of Corporate DOJO. They provide information, insights, resources, tips, strategies and explore the choices you may consider enabling you to return to your best self if your experience of workplace bullying has knocked you for a six.

Karen explains the workplace factors that put people at risk of bullying and harassment and the importance of leadership that fosters a culture of trust and respect where workplace bullying is not tolerated to ensure that staff are supported to thrive. We also discuss the ‘unconscious bully’ and factors that may cause a person to engage in bullying and harassment. Karen offers her thoughts on solutions to help prevent or solve the issue of bullying in the workplace. Listen to the episode.

 

Episode 25 cover: Illustration of joined handsEpisode 25: Workplace bullying and harassment – personal stories and help-seeking with Tessa Moriarty and Elle Brown

In the second part of this special double episode of the podcast Mark talks to Tessa Moriarty, a mental health nurse who shares her personal story of workplace bullying and how she recovered from the experience. Tessa shares that by the time she realised she was being bullied both her mental and physical health had been negatively affected. 

Elle Brown, Nurse & Midwife Support Senior Clinician also joins us to provide information and insights into what to expect if you contact Nurse & Midwife Support about workplace bullying and/or harassment and how we can assist you. Listen to the episode.

You are not alone

Many people tell us they feel isolated, fearful and lonely when they are subjected to workplace bullying. It’s important to know that you are not alone. Reach out for support sooner, rather than later. We are always here for you — 24/7, 365, Australia-wide. If you need to talk, give us a call on 1800 667 877 or email us

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