Bullying - what is it?

Bullying isn't something that just happens in school playgrounds. It happens all too often in workplaces, making the daily lives of many workers intolerable.

Bullying occurs in many workplaces. Results from various Australian polls show that around 50% of workers have been bullied, threatened, harassed or abused at work. Bullying can be a threat to physical well being, and it can make life at work a misery. This was confirmed in the ACTU's Work Shouldn't Hurt survey.  It can result in actual physical injury or health problems due to stress. Not only is it a health and safety issue, but it also affects the productivity and effectiveness of organizations. It is a serious problem.

What is bullying?

The definition of bullying in the WorkSafe Victoria Guide Preventing and responding to bullying at work was:

"Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety."

Bullying is the misuse of the "power" of an individual or group derived from their position, seniority, physical attributes, gender, race or nationality against other people. The following types of behaviour, where repeated or occurring as part of a pattern of behaviour would be considered bullying:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Excluding or isolating employees.
  • Psychological harassment.
  • Assigning meaningless tasks unrelated to the job.
  • Giving employees impossible assignments.
  • Deliberately changing work rosters to inconvenience particular employees.
  • Deliberately withholding information that is vital for effective work performance.

This list is not exhaustive and other factors which may contribute to the risk of bullying include:

  • Organisational change
  • Workforce characteristics
  • Workplace relationships
  • Work systems

*In 2012, WorkSafe replaced the Guide referred to above with another publication, and amended the definition to one that was not consistent with the nationally agreed definition of bullying. The 2012 publication stated:

"Workplace bullying is characterised by persistent and repeated negative behaviour directed at an employee that creates a risk to health and safety."

Stakeholders (unions and employer organisations) sought a review of the definition, and after much debate, the Victorian definition is now once again consistent with the national one.

What isn't bullying?

Reasonable management actions carried out in a fair way are not bullying. For example:

  • setting performance goals, standards and deadlines
  • allocating work to a worker
  • rostering and allocating working hours
  • transferring a worker
  • deciding not to select a worker for promotion
  • informing a worker about unsatisfactory work performance
  • informing a worker about inappropriate behaviour
  • implementing organisational changes
  • performance management processes
  • constructive feedback
  • downsizing.

Of course - behaviour associated with some of the above may be bullying - ie how rostering and allocating hours is done. If it's done fairly, and everyone is treated in the same way, then it is not bullying.

Tool for identifying bullying

We have created an easy to use tool to help you identify if what you're experiencing at work is reasonable management action, organisational justice program or bullying. This tool is to be used as in an indicator only.

click to download

What are the health effects of bullying?

For the worker

Stress and ill health can become part of the daily life of those being bullied.

Symptoms can include:

~ anxiety ~ headaches ~ nausea ~ ulcers ~ sleeplessness ~ skin rashes ~ irritable bowel syndrome ~ high blood pressure ~ tearfulness ~ loss of self confidence ~ various illnesses of the organs, such as kidneys ~ thoughts of suicide ~ reliance on unhealthy "stress relievers" such as alcohol or drugs

For Your Boss

Bullying is recognised as a major cause of stress in the workplace and by law, stress must be dealt with in the same way as any other health and safety hazard. Employers who fail to tackle bullying can pay a high price:

  • lost time - because staff are affected by stress and ill health
  • lost incentive - because morale is low
  • reduced work output & quality of service
  • lost resources - because people who are trained & experienced leave the organization
  • adverse media attention

Who is at risk?

Anyone can be bullied. Casual employees, part-time workers and those employed on individual contracts or Australian Workplace Agreements are generally more vulnerable to bullying because they are less likely to complain.

Fellow workers, supervisors or managers can carry out bullying. Australian unions, as well as independent research carried out by the Staffordshire University in the UK (which surveyed many hundreds of workers), indicates that in the vast majority of cases, bullying is carried out by a person in authority while stress and ill-health becomes part of the employee's daily life.

More information:

WorkSafe Victoria has a page on bullying at work, with more publications - but check this page for more sources of information, both Australian and international.

Last amended Jan 2021