Work-related bullying in your place of work can affect your workers’ psychological and physical health and must be managed.
What's work-related bullying?
Work-related bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.
Examples of behaviour, whether intentional or unintentional, that may be work-related bullying include, but are not limited to:
- abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments
- unjustified criticism or complaints
- deliberately leaving someone out of work-related activities
- withholding information that is vital for effective work performance
- setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines
- setting tasks that are unreasonably below or beyond a person's skill level
- not giving someone the information, supervision, consultation or resources they need to get the job done
- spreading misinformation or mean rumours
- changing work arrangements, such as rosters and leave, to deliberately put particularly workers out.
What's not bullying?
A one-off incident of unreasonable behaviour isn't work-related bullying, however it may be repeated or escalated and so should not be ignored.
Examples of behaviours or situations that aren’t workplace bullying include:
- unreasonable behaviour that involves physical violence, for example a physical assault or threat of physical assault
- reasonable management action, in connection with a worker’s employment, isn't considered bullying if it’s done in a lawful and reasonable way, taking the particular circumstances into account
- acts of unlawful discrimination or sexual harassment
- a conflict at work – differences of opinion and disagreement are generally not considered to be bullying.
Advice and assistance on how to deal with discrimination or sexual harassment can be provided by:
What are the risks?
Bullying at work can be harmful to the person being bullied and also to those who see it happening. Bullying affects workers in different ways and will vary depending on individual characteristics and the specific situation.
The effects of bullying could include:
- panic attacks or disturbed sleep
- physical illness, for example muscle tension, headaches, fatigue and digestive problems
- loss of self-esteem and self-confidence
- feeling isolated
- deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family and friends
- negative impact on work performance, concentration and decision-making ability
- suicidal thoughts.
Bullying can also have a negative impact on the work environment and create direct and indirect costs for a business, including:
- high staff turnover and recruitment and training costs
- low morale and motivation
- increased absenteeism
- lost productivity
- disruption to work when complex complaints are being investigated
- counselling, mediating and support costs
- costly workers’ compensation claims or legal action
- damage to the reputation of the business.
How do I manage the risks?
Everyone at your place of work has a work health and safety duty. Working together, you can help keep bullying from happening at work.
As a worker, you have a duty to:
- take reasonable care for your own health and safety while at work
- take reasonable care that your acts don’t negatively affect the health and safety of others
- follow any reasonable instruction given by the person who conducts a business or undertaking (PCBU)
- co-operate with any reasonable policies and procedures of the PCBU, for example a bullying policy.
You should read the information on this page together with Dealing with workplace bullying – a worker’s guide. This guide will help you to deal with bullying and keep it from happening at your place of work.
As a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), you have a primary duty to ensure the health and safety of your workers, and others, in your place of work.
This duty includes, so far as is reasonably practicable:
- providing and maintaining a work environment that is without risks to health and safety
- providing and maintaining safe systems of work
- monitoring the health and safety of workers and the conditions at your place of work to ensure that work related illnesses and injuries are prevented
- providing appropriate information, instruction, training or supervision to workers and other persons at your place of work to allow work to be carried out safely.
Following the risk management process will help your business meet its responsibilities under work health and safety (WHS) laws. The Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying contains detailed information around each step of the process.
You can find out if bullying is happening, or there is the potential for bullying, by:
- talking regularly with workers, health and safety representatives and health and safety committees to find out if bullying is happening or if there’s anything that could increase the risk of bullying
- seeking feedback when workers leave the business, for example, holding exit interviews
- seeking regular feedback from managers, supervisors or other internal and external parties
- monitoring incident reports, workers compensation claims, patterns of absenteeism, sick leave, staff turnover and records of grievances to establish regular patterns or sudden unexplained changes
- recognising changes in working relationships between workers, customers and managers.
There are a number of factors that could increase the risk of bullying at your place of work. Section 2 of the Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying has a list of these.
You can reduce the risk of bullying by creating and promoting a positive work environment where everyone is treated fairly and with respect. You should consider a combination of the following control measures at your place of work.
A senior management team that is committed to identifying, preventing and responding to bullying can help prevent unreasonable behaviour and manage psychological risks. For example, managers can show their commitment by making sure reports of bullying are taken seriously and properly investigated each time.
Set the standard of work behaviour
You can outline what is and is not appropriate behaviour in a code of conduct or a policy to your business. With the standard of work behaviour set, you can address inappropriate behaviours before they escalate.
Develop productive and respectful working relationships
Good management practices and communication are an important part of creating a work environment that prevents bullying. For example, mentoring and supporting new and poor performing managers and workers.
Design safe systems of work
Work design control measures may reduce the risk of bullying, for example, reviewing and monitoring workloads and staffing levels to reduce over-the-top working hours.
Implement reporting and response procedures
It’s important for workers who experience or witness bullying at work to know they can talk to someone in the business, that their report will be taken seriously, and that it will be confidential. Workers affected by bullying will be more likely to report their case if there’s a reporting process in place.
Provide training and information
Training can significantly help you prevent and manage bullying at work. It's particularly useful for early intervention in conflict before it potentially escalates into bullying. There are many ways you can provide training including online courses, podcasts and face-to-face training.
Section 2 of the Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying looks at each of these control measures in detail. You should read this to make sure you know how to stop bullying from happening in your place of work.
Risk management should be an ongoing process in your business and you should review your control measures regularly. Don’t wait until something goes wrong.
Policies and procedures should be reviewed regularly. You must carry out a review alongside your workers and their health and safety representatives (if any).
A review can be taken at any time but it’s recommended it’s taken at least:
- when a case of bullying at work has been found
- at the reasonable request of a health and safety representative or a health and safety committee
- when new or additional information or research about bullying at work becomes available
- where a review of records shows reports of bullying at work are increasing, or
- according to a scheduled review date.
You should report the results of reviews and any suggested improvements to managers, board members and applicable health and safety representatives and health and safety committees.
As a PCBU, you may take reasonable management action to effectively direct and control the way work is carried out.
It’s reasonable for managers and supervisors to allocate work and give feedback on a worker’s performance. These actions aren’t considered to be bullying if they’re carried out in a lawful and reasonable way, taking the particular circumstances into account.
A manager exercising their legitimate authority at work may make some workers uncomfortable.
The question of whether management action is reasonable is determined by considering:
- the actual management action rather than a worker’s viewpoint of it
- if the action involved a significant departure from established policies or procedures
- if a departure from established policies or procedures happened, whether it was reasonable in the circumstances.
Some examples of reasonable management action are:
- setting realistic and achievable performance goals, standards and deadlines
- fair and appropriate rostering and allocation of working hours
- transferring a worker to another area or role for operational reasons
- deciding not to select a worker for promotion where a fair and transparent process is followed
- telling a worker about unsatisfactory work performance in an honest, fair and constructive way
- telling a worker about unreasonable behaviour in an objective and confidential way
- implementing organisational changes or restructuring
- taking disciplinary action, including suspending or terminating employment where appropriate or justified in the circumstances.
Standards and compliance
All standards and compliance responsibilities for psychological health fall under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.
Codes of practice
You should read through the relevant legislation and codes of practice carefully to make sure your business is complying with the health and safety duties in the WHS Act.
- Work Health and Safety Act 2011
- How to manage work health and safety risks 2011
- Managing the work environment and facilities Code of Practice 2011 (PDF, 0.7 MB)
- Work health and safety consultation, co-operation and co-ordination Code of Practice 2011 (PDF, 0.47 MB)
Tools and resources
- Dealing with workplace bullying – a worker’s guide – information to help you determine if bullying at work is occurring and how the matter may be resolved
- Anti-bullying benchbook – a benchbook designed to assist you when lodging or responding to anti-bullying applications under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Fair Work Act)
- Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying – A guide with information on how to manage the risks of bullying as part of meeting your duties under WHS laws
- Work-related bullying: issues at common law and work-related bullying: legislative requirements – two WorkCover webinars with handy information around bullying
- The role of Workplace Health and Safety Queensland in workplace bullying complaints
- Work-related psychological health and safety A systematic approach to meeting your duties. National guidance material, January 2019