With the federal government increasingly exercising its legislative muscle when it comes to workplace bullying, employers are expected to be vigilant in prevention and to properly deal with bullying when issues arise. One of the key areas is work health and safety (WHS) and the physical impact of workplace bullying.
WHS legislation requires that employees are safe from physical or psychological harm at work (including workplace bullying). There are criminal sanctions for any breaches. Everyone in a workplace has an obligation to ensure their own safety and that of others, and employers must provide and maintain a safe workplace. This means that everyone in a workplace must try to ensure that workplace bullying does not occur.
Physical impact of bullying
The psychological impact of bullying is well documented, including anxiety, depression, mood swings, panic attacks, impaired concentration and loss of self-esteem. The federal government’s publication Bullying in the workplace: A guide to prevention for managers and supervisors also gives a list of physical symptoms, including digestive problems, skin conditions and musculoskeletal disorders (for example fibromyalgia). According to the US Workplace Bullying Institute, other issues can include:
- High blood pressure.
- Heart palpitations or heart attack.
- Severe headaches.
- Post-traumatic stress.
- Lack of coordination.
- Uncontrollable crying.
- Eating disorders.
- Reduced immunity.
The guide notes that physical factors impact an organisation in many ways, including lost productivity due to illness, higher staff turnover, poor public profile, increased time and expense spent managing the problem, and potential workers’ compensation claims and litigation.
Further, even though bullying is often subtle, covert and difficult to detect, organisations must have in place proper systems and procedures for educating employees about bullying, identifying and preventing problems, and adequately responding to complaints. Bullying must be identified, assessed and controlled in the same way that any other WHS hazards are managed.
The consequences can be tragic
It may seem that an employee taking time off to get over a cold or because of a headache isn’t really a big deal. After all, that’s why they have sick leave. But the risk is that if left unchecked, any harm that an employee is suffering as a result of bullying can escalate with disastrous consequences.
Take the case of Victorian teenager Brodie Panlock. She was subjected to appalling treatment at the café where she worked, including being verbally humiliated by her manager and co-workers, covered in chocolate sauce and on a number of occasions was held down and had oil poured over her head. Brodie resorted to self-harm by cutting herself and later taking rat poison and alcohol. Horrifically, shortly afterwards she committed suicide. The café owner, manager and two of the co-workers were charged and fined under WHS legislation. Later, the Victorian Government enacted Brodie’s Law, criminalising serious workplace bullying and imposing a maximum prison term of 10 years.
Then there’s the case of 16-year-old apprentice Alec Meikle who was subjected to extreme verbal and physical abuse by his supervisor and co-workers. Within three days of commencing work, he was called abusive and derogatory names, which continued on a daily basis. He was burnt with a welding torch, sprayed with glue and set on fire. His co-workers had also threatened to anally rape him with a steel rod if he made too many mistakes. The bullying was so severe that Meikle left the company after three months. But the effects stayed with him. He was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and an adjustment disorder. Following a hospital admission, he tried to kill himself. Then a few months later, he committed suicide. It was clear that he could not overcome the effects of the abuse, even after leaving the workplace and with medical treatment and close monitoring.
Although the subsequent coronial inquest ultimately made no findings, the matter serves as a warning that the effects of bullying can continue long after the conduct has stopped. It is another reason for employers to be vigilant in prevention, monitoring and actively dealing with bullying issues.
The physical impact of workplace bullying is a serious issue. If you are concerned about possible bullying incidents in your workplace, or wish to develop strategies for prevention, WISE Workplace can help.
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WISE Workplace provides expert investigators to help conduct investigations into complaints of bullying and harassment as well as a variety of training courses to assist organisations to prevent and respond to complaints. See below for upcoming course dates.