Bullying in the workplace: New research reveals big risk to modern workplaces

Startling new research by the University of Melbourne and Deakin University has found that female health professionals are susceptible to greater incidents of bullying and harassment, and are at twice the risk of suicide than women in other professions.

Researchers found that a perfect storm of ‘less than perfect’ working conditions – including long hours, work-family conflicts, and fear of making mistakes – resulted in higher levels of stress among medical professionals than other sectors. Whilst this study revealed this chronic risk of burnout leading to potential suicide amongst healthcare workers, there are many organisations in a host of different industries that, knowingly or unknowingly, foster a high-stress culture.

This can place the entire workforce in a position where there is a greater risk of bullying and harassment, particularly if the culture is “a more masculine environment, usually oriented around work hours suited to men which are less flexible,” said lead author Dr Allison Milner of Deakin University. These stresses were in turn found to be associated with the development of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Organisations that are subject to a culture of bullying or harassment are generally less productive, not to mention liable to costly litigation. Therefore, it goes without saying that identifying the potential for these issues to arise in your workplace might enable you to save your organisation from a far greater headache in the future.

The serious consequences that can emerge from workplace stress highlight the importance of finding the means of managing it. Identifying and addressing the risk factors supporting incidents of bullying and harassment is an important part of ensuring your organisational culture overall is positive and productive.

As the health sector research illustrated, vulnerable workers (such new or young workers, or workers from an ethnic or gender minority) are often more susceptible to bullying. However there are a wide range of factors that might give rise to bullying within an organisation, including poor workplace relationships (such as interpersonal conflict or poor relations between management and staff); lack of appropriate work systems (for example, poor training, lack of resources or a lack of support systems); or negative leadership styles (overly autocratic or laissez-faire management cultures).

A stressful workplace is ultimately an unproductive workplace. Worse, incidents of workplace bullying can find their way to the courts, resulting in costly fees and litigation. From an organisational perspective, ensuring that you have done all you can to address the factors and situations susceptible to bullying within your organisation will ensure a safer and more productive working environment for all. Practical training may be part of the solution, to ensure your leadership team is armed with the skills to manage these situations if and when they arise.