Bullying - how much of a problem is it?

Most people think of bullying at work as persecuting or ganging up on individuals. But that's only part of the story – most bullying is not so obvious. Bossing people around, intimidating or threatening them, or keeping them under constant work and time pressures is also bullying. Research by the ACTU and others reveals that this is the most common form of bullying in Australian workplaces.


The Productivity Commission (in its 2010 report Performance Benchmarking of Australian Business Regulation: Occupational Health & Safety) estimated the cost of workplace bullying with a huge margin of variation, between A$6 billion and A$36 billion annually.

The report states, on page 279:

"Estimates of the prevalence and cost of psychosocial hazards vary considerably. For example, using international studies as a guide, estimates of the annual cost of workplace bullying to employers and the economy in Australia ranged from $6 billion to $36 billion (in 2000)."

According to the Tasmanian Anti Discrimination Commissioner, workplace bullying and harassment are significant by-products of privatisation, restructuring and downsizing in government, business and industry.

A significant proportion of claims to the Tasmanian Anti Discrimination Commissioner involve bullying, harassment and employment discrimination generally.

The South Australian Office of the Employee Ombudsman receives over 500 complaints each year on workplace bullying issues, and the figure is increasing. The SA Working Women's Centre 1997 survey on bullying found that over half the respondents had been bullied in the previous three months, and almost all of those said it was still continuing. Over 85% of the SA Working Women's Centre survey respondents said that the bullying was carried out by a person in authority - manager, employer or supervisor. Over 80% added that others at work were also being bullied.

Griffith University's Dr. Paul McCarthy has estimated that 350,000 people are subjected to long-term bullying in Australia, while 2.5 million experience some aspect of bullying over the course of their working lives.

A 1998 Morgan Poll found that 46% of Australians have been verbally or physically abused by someone with whom they work. (Source Morgan Poll 1998, Finding No. 13091, 9 June)

It has been argued that there is little, if any hard Australian evidence of the costs of workplace bullying specifically. The Productivity Commission estimate was based on international studies and the estimate was already ten years old when published by the Productivity Commission. However, talk to workers, unions, and even employer groups, and all will say it's certainly a problem.. but some say the perception of workplace bullying may be greater than the reality. Nevertheless, both the 'perception' and the 'reality' need to be tackled.  

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Research published in 2014 has revealed that Australia is ranked the sixth highest for workplace bullying compared against 31 European countries.  The data from the 2009-2011 Australian Work Barometer (AWB) project of 5,919 workers found 7% reported being bullied over the previous six months. The results, released at the International Commission on Occupational Health-Work Organisation and Psychosocial Factors Congress held in Adelaide in September 2014, ranked Australia 11th for workplace violence rates.  An estimated 3% from an AWB sample of 4,526 workers in Australia reported managers, supervisors or co-workers had physically assaulted or threatened them at work.

Women workers reported higher rates of bullying and for longer periods than men including more unwanted sexual advances, humiliation and unfair treatment due to gender. Men reported higher rates of workplace violence.

The data is contained in the publication: The Australian Workplace Barometer: Psychosocial safety climate and working conditions in Australia edited by Professor Maureen Dollard and Tessa Bailey. 

Professor Dollard says the results show that more attention needs to be given to the development of work environments that are not only physically safe, but also psychosocially safe. "Effective workplace policies and procedures are crucial to stem the tide but evidence suggests that there is still work to be done to embed good policy and practice," Professor Dollard says. "Procedures and policies need to sit within a strong climate of safety including, psychosocial safety, where there is an explicit commitment to mental health at work at all levels and areas of the organisation."

She says workplaces are crying out for practical guidance in this area, and has called for a national code of practice for workplace bullying instead of the current guidance material. "There needs to be a high level of management commitment and priority given to preventing and resolving conflict, participation from all levels of the organisation, and strong communication and feedback systems in place," she says.
University of South Australia Media Release Australians: Some of the worst bullies at work.


Although bullying affects employees at all levels, most perpetrators are managers.  A study by the University of Manchester found that 94% of people thought bullies can get way with it, 92% say bullying is caused by work, and one in six say that their employers 'encourage bullying management'.

The University of Manchester also found that bullying is associated with autocratic management styles, divisiveness and 'punishment for no obvious reason', and with a negative work climate, high workload and unsatisfactory relationships at work.  The University of Manchester study estimated that between a third and a half of work-related stress is caused by bullying.

Eight out of ten people surveyed about bullying by Staffordshire University on behalf of a UK trade union said that it was their manager doing the bullying.

The London Chamber of Commerce cites overworked and overstressed managers as the most common workplace bully, and says that bullying can be the consequence of downsizing and delayering.  It says that bullying can be tackled by generating a positive working environment, which encourages values such as honesty, respect, trust, and participation amongst all workers.

Bullying happens most to those with little control in the work environment. In the Whitehall 2 Study, Marmot found that lack of control is typical in situations of stress, and is related to poor health outcomes.

The World Health Organisation found that people experiencing anxiety or depression find it more difficult to manage usual daily tasks (like work, shopping, exercise, and hobbies) than people suffering with physical conditions such as arthritis, diabetes and back pain.

Bullying can undermine other rights at work. The University of Manchester study found that 20% of workers in the UK, who sign to 'opt out' of the Working Time Regulations, do so against their will.

Union surveys on workplace bullying

As part of the ACTU National Health and Safety Campaign 'Being bossed around is bad for your health - the workplace is no place for bullying', some unions surveyed workers about bullying.

Results from over 3,000 responses received by the ACTU, from a range of unions representing the health, education, finance, manufacturing, clerical and administration, in the public and private sectors, are presented below:

  • Over half the respondents (53%) report an unhappy and oppressive workplace, and 54% say that that intimidating behaviour - shouting, ordering and belittling people happens in their workplaces.  Almost a third report abusive language.
  • Forty-four per cent say that people are afraid to speak up about those behaviours in their workplaces, or about working conditions and health and safety.
  • Around a third report pressure of impossible targets and demands to perform tasks for which they have not been adequately trained.
  • Twenty per cent have been threatened with the sack, 10% have experienced physically threatening behaviour, and 5% report being assaulted at work.
  • Almost 70% report that either a manager or supervisor carries out the bullying behaviour and 14% say it is the employer.  Less than 30% say that the bullying is carried out by fellow workers or by clients or customers.
  • People are reporting a range of symptoms as a result of being bullied, including feeling stressed (73%); feeling angry (67%); feeling depressed (59%); sleep difficulties (48%); headaches, and feeling helpless (45%); feeling fearful (29%); and stomach problems (24%).
  • Sixty per cent say that workplace bullying is affecting their home and social life, and 44% say that they have taken time off work due to the bullying.  Most (39%) have taken sick leave, 8% have used recreation leave, 6% have taken leave without pay, but only 4% have received workers' compensation.
  • Only 18% say that anything is being done to stop the bullying behaviour.

Last amended April 2020