New Zealand has world's second highest rate of workplace bullying

"You have to write a note and die to prove a point [about bullying]."
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"You have to write a note and die to prove a point [about bullying]."

Attitudes towards workplace bullying are what they were towards domestic violence 30 years ago, says Culture Safe New Zealand director Allan Halse.

"When Women's Refuge started talking about the need to be safe people called them hairy-legged lesbians and said that was a matter between a couple. Now there's an acceptance that it is a problem.

"In New Zealand [workplace bullying] is something to do with the whole blokey 'suck it up' culture. It's got nothing to do with being weak or strong - if someone's being undermined that affects their self worth."

Joanne MacLennan, left, and Allan Halse of Culture Safe NZ with Business Forum on Mental Health co-ordinator Jacqui Irwin.
MARTIN DE RUYTER

Joanne MacLennan, left, and Allan Halse of Culture Safe NZ with Business Forum on Mental Health co-ordinator Jacqui Irwin.

Halse and his colleagues delivered an anti-bullying seminar to about 100 workers in Nelson on Friday as part of the Health Action Trust's business forum on mental health.

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Forum co-ordinator Jacqui Irwin said public servants, council staff, health professionals and industry leaders took the opportunity to learn robust processes to target workplace bullying without traumatising or blaming victims.

It was exciting to see employers take a proactive approach, organisers said, but getting workplaces to treat psychological harm as seriously as physical attacks was an uphill battle.

Seventy per cent of workplace bullying is top down and its often difficult for colleagues to help without "lifting your head too far above the parapet" and becoming a target themselves, Culture Safe employment advocate Joanne MacLennan said.

A 1700-person academic survey showed New Zealand had the second-worst rate of workplace bullying in the developed world with one in five workers afflicted.

Intimidation, humiliation, exclusion and ridicule caused trauma and were often endured for too long with tragic consequences.

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"You have to write a note and die to prove a point," MacLennan said.

New health and safety laws can sentence to prison bosses who were deemed culpable for action that results in serious harm or death and yet new managers were often the worst culprits, targeting popular and successful staff who they felt threatened their seniority, Halse said.

Many organisations claimed a zero-tolerance policy on workplace bullying but "the practice doesn't fit with the words".

"You come into meeting after meeting, mediation after mediation, where the employer is using tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers to deny it's happened.

He said there was also apathy towards the issue at a governmental level.

No legislation specifically addresses workplace bullying, the legal definition of bullying is vague at best, and studies into the links between bullying and mental health are rare.

"We hear about lots of deaths from cyber-bullying and, not to diminish that, but workplace bullying is probably more common."

Irwin said Nelson was not immune and that its "sunshine wages" meant family breadwinners were stuck in abusive workplaces until mediation, where grievances usually worsened.

"It's a hollow victory if you just get some money because nothing has actually changed. Today is about putting a fence at the top of the cliff."

MacLennan said employers who acknowledged the issue took a massive step in validating their staff's concerns and changing our working culture.

She recalled a meeting between a six-year staffer and his boss, the chief financial officer of a large organisation.

"He said 'we have a really bad history of workplace bullying and an even worse history of dealing with it, and I'm sorry.'

"I wanted to climb across the table and kiss the guy but I kept my composure.

"When we left [the worker] said 'I feel like I've just been released from prison.'"


WHAT DOES WORKPLACE BULLYING LOOK LIKE?

- 17.8 per cent of New Zealanders surveyed in 2013 said they experienced workplace bullying in the last six months.

- Men are more likely to experience personal attacks such as being yelled at, threatened with violence, ridiculed or publicly humiliated.

- Women are more likely to be the target of professional sabotage such as unachievable assignments, unwarranted criticism or being excluded from important decisions.

- Healthcare providers, government agencies and local councils typically have the highest rates of workplace bullying.

- 90 per cent of Culture Safe's clients are women.

- Many approach the organisation after having suicidal thoughts.

- Workplace bullying is characterised as a serious hazard under the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

 - Stuff

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