Skip to content

Return to work after workplace bullying

Bullying cases present unique challenges for return to work coordinators and employers. In a webinar first presented on 30 October 2014, Dr Kirsten Way, Manager Work and Electrical Safety Policy from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, provides an insight into how the different perspectives of people involved in conflict can affect working relationships.

As an organisational psychologist and occupational therapist with extensive experience in determining and implementing government policy in work related psychological injury in both Australia and the UK, Kirsten shares her tips on fostering interpersonal reconciliation and facilitating effective return to work in workplace bullying claims.

Watch the video recording of the webinar. This content is protected under copyright .

Download a copy of this film (ZIP/MP4, 8MB)

Return to Work after Workplace Bullying

Dr Kirsten Way

Slide 1

Slide 2


Hello and welcome to today's webinar on Bullying and Return to Work. My name is Rachel Hawkins and I will be your facilitator for today.

Next to me is our presenter for today, our expert speaker, Dr Kirsten Way.

Slide 3

Kirsten is an Organisational Psychologist, Occupational Therapist and Certified Professional Ergonomist with over 15 years' experience in worker and group-level psychology effect on workplace health and safety. Kirsten is recognised both internationally and within Australia for her specific expertise in workplace bullying, work-related mental health, workplace stress, human factors and ergonomics.

I will now invite Kirsten to take over and share her knowledge and give you insights into what the research tells us about workplace bullying and how to foster relationships for the benefit of return to work.

Kirsten Way: Hello everyone and thanks for having me today.

Slide 4

We're going to be talking today about the challenging area of return to work after workplace bulling and some of the unique things about workplace bullying that make this a worthy topic of conversation. So, just as an overview we're going to talk about just some contextual statistics to give you an idea about prevalence rates and some other interesting data about workplace bullying and return to work.

We're going to quickly cover what is and what isn't workplace bullying just again, to put it in context, but we're also going to ask the question about does it really matter if it meets that definition. We're going to talk about what makes bullying unique when it comes to return to work and then we're going to go through some brief principles for practice.

Slide 5

So, just to start things off we do have a couple of poll questions just for you to think about. Because it's a recorded webinar you won't be able to actually input these into your computer, but if you can just have a think about what industry you work in because we're now going to talk about some of the statistics relevant to workplace bullying at the industry level.

Slide 6

So, first of all if we look at claims data and we know that about 4.5 percent of the claims in Queensland in 2012-13 were for work-related psychological injury. Thirty-three percent of those had workplace bullying as the mechanism for injury. So, quite a large number of work-related psychological injury claims was an underlying mechanism of workplace bullying.

If we look at those industries that have the biggest representation for workplace bullying, it's these four industries here in front of you – health care and social assistance, public administration and safety, education and training and retail trade, and they represent 51 percent of the workplace bullying claims in Queensland.

Slide 7

But as we know, bullying claims are only one source of the data and probably from your own experience there's a significant number of workers who choose not to put in a claim for workers' compensation when it comes to workplace bullying and indeed, there's evidence that there's a very large number of people who choose not to report it at all.

So, the next best source of data we have is self-report, confidential self-report and the data that you can see in front of you here gives an indication of self-report data for a very large Queensland database from 2003 and you can see there that there's interesting differences in industry profiles. I think what's particularly interesting about this graph is it indicates the difference between people who self-label as a victim of workplace bullying and people's behavioural experience of the types of behaviours that meet the definition of workplace bullying.

So, you can see there that the grey graph is behavioural experience. So this is an objective list where they say "I have been exposed to these kinds of behaviours," with the frequency that meets the definition of workplace bullying. That's the grey bar. The black bar is people answering "Have I been exposed to workplace bullying?" a simple question like that, so self-labelling as a victim of workplace bullying. And I think what's interesting here is these industry-level differences in the difference between whether people label their behaviour as workplace bullying or not. So you can see if you were to look at self-labelling, whether people self-labelled as a victim of workplace bullying, you would say that bullying prevalence is higher in the public sector than in the private sector.

Whereas, if you were to look at the behavioural experience, you can see that it's actually higher in the private sector than in the private sector. So what that's telling us is that certain industries, people are exposed to worse behaviour but they don't call it workplace bullying, which has a number of implications for whether they're likely to put in a claim and for how they're likely to perceive the behaviour. And the industries that have the biggest discrepancy in those was the construction industry, perhaps not surprisingly, and perhaps surprisingly, health and community services also had a higher incidence of behavioural experience than self-labelling. So they're the two industries that put up with more bad behaviour before they call it workplace bullying.

Slide 8

So if we move onto return to work and workplace bullying rather than just general prevalence rates, the thing that I'd like you to think about now is what you think the overall return to work rate is for workplace bullying and whether you think it's really quite low, less than 20 percent, 20-40 percent, 40-60 percent, or whether you think it's actually pretty good, in the 61-80 or the 80-100 percent range. And we do have some data for you in relation to that so you can see what it is.

Slide 9

So if we look at this next graph you can see that the overall return to work rate for all injuries and illnesses is 96.7 percent, so very high in Queensland. Actually we should be very proud of our higher return to work rate, and for bullying 84.2 percent. So I'm not sure if you're surprised about that. I was surprised. It's actually higher than I would have expected from my anecdotal experience with return to work and workplace bullying, but again, the story unfolds a bit more when we look at what people are returning to work.

So you can see there's a significant drop in people returning to the same job with the same employer, and a larger number of workers that are going to either the same job with a different employer or a different job with the same employer, or a different job with a different employer. So returning to work but not in the same place essentially, but still quite a large number, close to 70 percent that are going back into the same work environment that they were in when they made the allegations of workplace bullying. And we'll come back to those figures later because it does – which of those return to work aims people are striving for obviously has big implications for what we're talking about today.

Slide 10

If you're interested in some comparable scheme statistics there's a reference there and a link that you can click on to find that information.

Okay, so again, just briefly to put it in some kind of perspective and place it against the definition of workplace bullying, there's a national guide for workplace bullying and that gives a definition. The same definition is also included in the Fair Work Jurisdiction where people can apply for a Stop Bullying Order, but it's exactly the same definition and what it says is for it to be workplace bullying it has to meet four tests:

  • It has to be firstly a repeated pattern of events.
  • The behaviour has to meet the 'Reasonable Person' test, so it has to be behaviour that a reasonable person with regard to the circumstances would perceive as victimising, humiliating, threatening or intimidating – those four descriptions.
  • It has to be directed towards a worker or group of workers, so that excludes situations where someone might be just coming into a room and you know, kind of emotionally discharging into the ether as opposed to directing their aggression or inappropriate behaviours towards a worker or group of workers.
  • And it has to be at such a level that it creates a risk to health and safety, so it can't be unduly speculative risks to health and safety.

Slide 11

So it has to meet those four tests and it can't be a number of things. It can't be a single incident. Probably most importantly and it's similar to the exclusion for psychological injury in the workers' comp claims process, it excludes reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way and the National Guide for Workplace Bullying lists some specific examples of reasonable management action and it teases out as well, what taken in a reasonable way means, but I'm sure you're quite familiar with this because it is something that's been in the workers' compensation jurisdiction for some time. But, it is this issue about whether it's workplace bullying or whether it's reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way, is really commonly the nub of what the problem is. So it's an important distinction.

It excludes workplace conflict. It excludes discrimination and sexual harassment and it doesn't include violence or assault or threats of assault, but often in practice what happens with these behaviours is there's a number of behaviours that occur over a period of time. One may fit into the category of discrimination and sexual harassment, one may fit into the category of threats of assault, but there may be others that the pattern of event constitutes workplace bullying. So, it's important to understand where it starts and stops.

Okay, so that's the definition of workplace bullying. It has to meet those four tests and it can't include these single incidents or reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way.

Slide 12

But I guess the question is does it really matter if it meets this definition when it comes to return to work, because there's a whole series of workplace indiscretions that can occur that meet the same types of challenges irrespective of whether it meets the threshold of this definition or not, and the things that we'll be talking about to consider apply equally, whether it actually meets the threshold test for workplace bullying or not. So, interpersonal deviants, counter-productive workplace behaviours, violence, conflict, sexual harassment and discrimination and a number of other workplace transgressions where the same principles apply.

So, I'd caution you not to get too hung up about whether it meets the definition of workplace bullying or not and in fact there's evidence to suggest that people self-labelling as a victim of workplace bullying for low-level conflict actually exacerbates their health conditions. So, in some instances it can be problematic to label something as workplace bullying when it doesn't meet that definition. Of course, if it's extreme behaviours, it doesn't matter what you call it, it can affect people's health.

Slide 13

Okay, so what is it that makes workplace bullying different and worthy of attention when it comes to return to work? And it is about what I'm going to talk about next, the divergent views of the parties to the conflict that can create all these challenges. So, just to give a real example that we can then pin some of this theory to, I will just read a case that's from an article called "Two dilemmas in dealing with workplace bullies – false positives and deliberate deceit" by Klein and Martin and it is a journal article that's in the International  Journal of Workplace Health Management 2011. Just let us know if you want to source it and we can send you the reference.

The complainant Duncan approached personnel staff after a confrontation with Delia, his Line Manager over timekeeping and office hours. Delia had only been in the post for three months covering for staff sickness but had previously been Duncan's equal and friend. Duncan's complaint centred on alleged charges to the flexible working hours policy created in the organisation after Delia asked him to account for his absence on a particular morning. Duncan was upset by being challenged in this way as he saw himself as a diligent team member. Timekeeping had not been a problem for his previous Manager but he was now struggling to maintain good working relationships in the face of what he perceived to be intrusive management style.

Duncan discussed with personnel staff if Equalities Officer might be an appropriate person to consult with about the issue of gender discrimination. He'd already tendered his resignation during the confrontation with Delia and followed this up with a formal letter of resignation to her boss. In both letter and his discussions with personnel he claimed he did not want to resign, but felt that Delia was forcing him out. Personnel persuaded Duncan to hold onto his resignation pending further investigation. Intent on heading off a formal complaint the personnel officers were thereby coerced into pursuing Duncan's wishes which at the time appeared to be some form of formal apology from Delia.

He had stated that his contract did not specify his working hours, Delia had no right to demand his presence at specific times and meanwhile, he began to email Delia with details of his whereabouts on an hour-by-hour basis.

So the case goes on and it's a good example because it's questionable on the face of it without further information about whether that does indeed meet the definition of workplace bullying, but it does show what we're going to talk about now which is this issue about the divergent views between victims and offenders, and these researchers use the term "victims and offenders" which is not terms that I'd prefer to use when it comes to workplace bullying because it does highlight I guess, the adversarial nature that's playing out in some people's perceptions of the situation.

Slide 14

But they use the term "victims and offenders" so I'll just stick with that for the purposes of explaining it, but essentially what these authors argue and I'm sure for those of you who've worked in the area, you'll see this and you'll have experience with this in a very real way, they argue that it's the divergence in the victims and offenders appraisal of the wrongdoing and the divergence in the appropriateness of the response that creates the challenges.

And the thing that I think – you can see this is 2014 article, Okimoto & Wenzel – the thing that I think is really, really helpful about this particular research is that it does put it all together in a coherent whole. Most of the research in the past has looked at this from a victim perspective in isolation, or an offender position in isolation and very limited research that's looked at the whole picture and trying to marry them together. But this is what makes it challenging and this is the way forward in terms of trying to achieve a good return to work outcome.

So, essentially what they're saying is that it's the same offence but different meanings are prescribed to it by different parties. So, if we look at the victim perspective for example, they've had an offence or upset in their sense of power. So if we think about Duncan's situation, he feels like he's had a threat to his control and the autonomy and his interpersonal status and respect, and what their goal is or what they're hoping for, the salient justice goal is to restore a sense of justice through satisfying that goal, and in this instance for victims, it's about empowerment, reasserting their sense of status. So, usually what they're hoping for to reassert that sense of status is punishment for the offender, or an apology, or sometimes it's about wanting to forgive and sometimes it's about wanting to stop it happening to other people. So this is the most common victim perspectives that you'll hear and I'm sure you've heard it before. "I just want an apology," "I just want someone to recognise that what's happened to me is wrong," and "I don't want it to happen to someone else," and "I really want the offender," the perceived offender, "to be punished."

The offender's perspective on the other hand is that they feel that they've had a threat made to their integrity and identity. So you can imagine in Delia's situation, she's the Manager. She may perceive that she's just doing her job and that she's had this threat to her identity as a Manager thrown at her, and also a threat to her interpersonal status and respect. It forces them to feel that they've had critical judgements made on their sense of self-worth.

Interestingly, obviously if they have this perspective, the last thing that these people usually want to do is apologise, but they feel that they need their sense of morality repaired and by apologising then it's not something that necessarily meets their justice goal. Indeed, there's been some research to suggest that people who don't apologise have less shame and less remorse. So there's some self-serving needs happening there that can interfere with whether the offender perspective helps them to achieve what the victim wants to happen. So you can see they're really quite different perspectives that influence whether they're likely to get to a point of mutual understanding in moving forward.

The third thing that's important to be aware of is this third party perspective and in organisations it's usually the team or the organisation as a whole. So people who've witnessed this happening have a threat to their sense of order and consensus and have strong reactions to a sense of injustice in the treatment of others. So it undoes their sense of control and they feel like they need to have social order and value and consensus restored which can be challenging when it comes to workplace bullying because often there's issues of confidentiality. So while other people in the team need to feel that things are in control, things are being remediated and things are safe and certain behaviours aren't tolerated and there's consequences for them - sometimes those things can't be made public because of issues of confidentiality.

So, the main things are there are these different perspectives, differences in the way the threat's perceived both internally and externally, and different goals that the parties want in terms of resolution, that these attributions are typically self-serving and they're sometimes obsessive and can exacerbate health symptoms and can prevent resolution if they're very strong and opposing. So, really it's a fit issue about given these responses, what might be perfectly suited to resolving things from the victim's perspective would be seen as unfair by the offender or the third party.

I think we've just got a question.

Facilitator: We do. I just know that a lot of return to work coordinators, this is a really interesting perspective and is it beneficial for return to work coordinators to really understand each of the different perspectives for the benefit of planning a return to work, and how would they do that? How might they have a discussion to explore what perspectives the injured worker or the employer or that third party may be holding, I suppose?

Kirsten Way: Yeah. So, when we talk about the principles of practice we'll go into a bit more detail about some of those issues, but that's a really good question and certainly one of the things I'd love for you to take away is it's very tempting for us to align with one perspective more or within our goals when it comes to return to work, be focusing on the perspective of one particular party. And what this tells us is if in doing that it's unlikely to achieve a long-lasting resolution because there will be these fit issues that will mean that by not taking into account the different perspectives, the likelihood of achieving what the different parties want is lower.

But, the issue of the subjectivity associated with this, while some might argue is the thing that makes it unique and incredibly hard, these researchers argue that it's actually also the key to resolution because it is something that's malleable and it is something that people can – third parties can work with to help them understand the different perspectives and thereby move them to have a different perspective of what's happened to them and then that that's the way forward. So it's about actively shaping those perceptions and transforming their motivations and attitudes from a negative one to a positive one.

Slide 15

So, how to navigate through?  If we move onto that, and it is about taking account of those various three concerns and helping people understand a reciprocal concern for others' viewpoints.

Slide 16

So, this is something that can take time and it is something that needs work done with the various parties separately. So to work only with the victim and not work with the person who's had the allegations made against them as well again is less likely to have successful outcomes. So the aim is to have a reciprocal concern for others' viewpoints, to have collective engagement in the repair process and then aim for relationship repair through restorative conferencing.

Slide 17

But, I guess the first thing and if we think back to the statistics about whether people were returning to the same job in the same place, or a different job in the same place, in the same organisation or any one of those different return to work outcomes, obviously the way you consider these things is going to be different depending on what the goal is in terms of the return to work outcome.

So, in terms of principles for practice, it's important to be really clear on what the aim is as soon as possible, and to talk to the worker about the aim of the return to work. Is the worker aiming to go back to the same job and I know in the workers that I've had dealings with, there's sometimes again, a very strong sense of justice. "I must go back to the same job because why should I be the one who has to go somewhere else when I'm the one who is the victim here?" So again, you can hear some of those perspectives coming through in that kind of language. But the principles are really as early as possible be really clear, is the worker aiming to get back to the same job in the same place, and if so, then these issues have greater relevance than if they're aiming to go to another organisation.

Issues about the seriousness of the behaviour, the blameworthiness, the intent, need to be considered and the number of – if for example, the bullying has been a group-based or multiple person series of events, then again that influences whether an appropriate purpose is to go back to the same job in the same location.

The second thing is about managing people's expectations and boundaries, so being really clear on the process and the outcomes. What aspects are within the scope of return to work and what aspects are more within the IR jurisdiction or the discrimination jurisdiction, and being really clear on the role of the Return to Work Coordinator versus the role of others, and then constantly reinforcing that throughout and again, throughout having a focus on positive opportunities and always focusing on the strengths and the goals.

Slide 18

In terms of boundary management skills, just being really open in how that's communicated with people. So, you can actually be very clear and say "My role is this and I'm not going to take sides." In working in return to work for workplace bullying, sometimes we can feel like we're pulled into other avenues. "I'm going to be monitoring that and letting you know when I feel like we're moving out of a return to work sphere and into another sphere, and then you can go and talk to this person." So, just being really open and putting that on the table up front, that there are these boundary management issues that can sometimes happen with these and that you'll be consciously monitoring it and letting them know.

Slide 19

Understanding the context and actively changing it where possible, and I guess that's inferred by talking about the different divergent perspectives, but again, by working only with the individual and not thinking about the person the allegation is against and the organisational context and the design of work and management is unlikely to result in the best outcome.

Dealing with emotion, closure of cases and knowing when to seek expert help – and I'll talk a bit more about those in relation to some of the other slides that I've got a bit later, but expert help like career advisors and return to work providers as well that have expertise in this area.

Slide 20

Now, I've got a slide here on Systems Theory and those of you who've heard me speak before would have heard me go on about this a bit because I do love Systems Theory. It's fundamentally important in working with organisations and individuals within it, and there's a number of principles that are helpful, but for the purposes of this topic, the thing that I think is most important to be aware of, that Systems Theory tells us is that you can't observe a system without influencing it and therefore becoming part of it. And when it comes to dealing with conflict and workplace bullying, what that means is sometimes you can be dealing with very strong personalities, sometimes people with personality disorders who are very good at influencing the system and influencing individuals around them to become part of the problem that manifested it in the beginning, and then you're just sucked into being part of that same pathological conflict situation.

So, it's just a principle to be aware of that it can happen and the importance of monitoring this, monitoring the boundary management, being aware when you feel like it's happening and that you're being sucked into some pathological relationship or conflict, and then a really useful thing to do is discussing the complex cases with confidential support persons because often it's that high-level, third party perspective and talking about it that allows you to see what's happening in relation to the relationships.

Slide 21

And the last thing in relation to just the general principles is just about self-care. So it can be a challenging area of work, it can be an incredibly rewarding area of work as well, but just being aware of the things that press your buttons. The notion that we sometimes hold in our heads that we need to be able to help everyone and fix every situation, and that sometimes these situations aren't fixable and it's okay. Then it's a matter of looking at what the other alternatives are rather than returning to the same situation that the people were in before. And understanding your own stress response, and again, I've said it a couple of times, just knowing when to get help from professionals, either as a support service for you or as a professional third party that can assist in the actual way things unfold.

Slide 22

So, in relation to the role of third parties there's a couple of things to be aware of.

Slide 23

First of all, well - what is it? It's the role of actively involving a third party. The specific conflict management strategy of actively involving a third party in a dispute. The reason it works well is because it helps with accurate information processing for the victim and the perpetrator. It gives a very clear procedure about how things are going to happen and it helps the parties to the conflict have a sense of control over the process and outcomes of their dispute.

Slide 24

And there's evidence that it in and of itself, buffers the effect of conflict stressors on wellbeing. So it works.

Slide 25

And what do these third parties do? Well they work through a process often with the person who sees themselves as the victim, the person who the allegations are made against and within the organisational system. So, they understand that it's not enough for real resolution, it's not enough for the victim and the offender to have a rudimentary concern for the working relationship. So, where they say "Oh well, we know we really hate each other deep down, but we've got to work together, so we'll just carry on." So, not enough just to do that and that simple cognitive perspective taking about the other person is not enough as well for there to be real resolution.

What these parties need to do is amend their current understanding of justice and engage in a collective resolution, and that's what these third parties are trained in and very good at. So there's specific return to work providers, workplace rehabilitation providers who work in this space all the time and I do encourage you to use them for the really challenging cases because it does give that sense of control over the process.

Facilitator: Kirsten, just on the note of third party or rehab providers, those third party stakeholders, what are some of the cues up front and early? There's a lot of research about early intervention. What would be some of the cues in a case where a Return to Work Coordinator would know that they may need to seek that external support right up front and early?

Kirsten Way: Yeah, okay. I think there's a number of scenarios. One is about the severity of the allegations that are made in the situation. The other thing is about the strengths of the positions that people are holding in relation to the issue because what these third parties do, and I guess what you guys do as well early on is a rudimentary risk assessment of the situation, and these issues like the severity of the behaviour, the blameworthiness and the strengths of the divergent views of the rights and wrongs of the situation give a good indication about "Is this going to be a particularly challenging one?" or "Do I feel like I'm going to be able to bring the parties together in a safe and constructive manner?" If you have a sense that that's not going to be possible, then that's where I would encourage you to get an external third party professional to help with the situation.

Facilitator: And you also mentioned before about sometimes there can be some complexities around the worker and how they might be drawing you into that process. What would be a classic example of how they might draw you into that process? What might be something they might say or do that might set off those alarm bells as well?

Kirsten Way: I think the thing that most commonly – the way it most commonly happens is that people – you feel like you're being encouraged to almost take sides or encouraged to almost stand beside the person as a cheerleader in what happened to them was terrible and wrong and shouldn't keep happening. Obviously these things may be true, bullying should be stamped out, but I think it makes it difficult for there to be a resolution if you're being engendered into one side as almost a cheerleader in a cause. It can influence whether people move on because so often there's a very, very strong fight for justice. And sometimes return to work coordinators or other professionals are just seen as a tool that that person can use to achieve their particular justice outcome - which may not be the justice outcome that's going to achieve a good return to work situation.

Slide 26

So just to finish off there's a couple of resources listed there that may help. There's the National Guide that I referred to that you can link to from the WorkSafe website. There's also a Worker's Guide. There's a workplace bullying information tool that steps through some of the various roles that stakeholders play. The People at Work project is a fantastic primary prevention tool that organisations can use to ascertain whether their level of psychological wellbeing in their workplace is markedly different from an Australian normative database, and if so, what work factors may be contributing to it. Resolve at Work is a 15 hour intervention model that's specifically designed for assistance in this type of area.

Slide 27

Again, there's some more information specific to the workers' comp jurisdiction on scheme information and useful resources and publications on those links that you have there.

Slide 28

And then there's the Return to Work Coordinator Community which I think Rachel is going to say something about now.

Facilitator: I will. Okay, fantastic and thank you Kirsten for an informative presentation today and for sharing the valuable practice principles for return to work coordinators to use in their roles to ensure successful return to work planning and outcomes. I know that we quite often hear stories about the complexity of some of the return to work and bullying claims, so it's definitely a hot topic and I think we need more education on the area. So thank you.

So Kirsten, on behalf of the Workers' Compensation Regulator I would like to say thank you for talking to our audience today. I've had the pleasure of hearing you present previously and you always captivate your audience with your expert knowledge and ability to make research findings so simple and easy to understand. So thank you, and I'm sure our listeners will appreciate the valuable strategies as I mentioned.

Well that concludes our webinar today. Just before we go I did want to highlight the Return to Work Coordinator community. This is along with our webinar initiative, a new initiative that we've created for return to work coordinators and we hope you join that community. That way you'll receive regular communication and current information about what we're doing for return to work coordinators in Queensland and your workplaces, and you can join using the address that's on the screen.

Slide 29

And finally, many of you would have attended our recent Return to Work Conference and it was great to see so many familiar faces visit us at our stand. So thank you so much. No doubt if you did attend you would have heard the dynamic and at times quite colourful conference presentations by both Bruce Sullivan and Julian Burton about the importance of gratitude.

Well, on behalf of the Workers' Compensation Regulator I would like to say thank you to all the return to work coordinators across the state for the role you play in planning an early and safe return to work.

Thank you for joining us and being involved in our new education initiative and we hope you join us again shortly.

Goodbye and have a great day.