One in five Kiwi workers suffer from workplace bullying, one of the worst rates in the world.
The figures are revealed in a university survey released today.
A joint university research team – from Auckland, Waikato, Massey and London – polled more than 1700 workers from the health, education, hospitality and travel sectors asking how frequently they were exposed to "negative acts" at work.
Overall 17.8 per cent of respondents were identified as victims of bullying.
The international range was between 5 per cent and 20 per cent.
Higher rates of bullying were found in the education and health sectors and also in kitchen "hot spots" within the hospitality industry.
Bullying included bosses picking on workers, workers harassing colleagues and workers intimidating bosses.
Lead researcher Professor Tim Bentley said the cost of bullying had been estimated in Britain at $NZ2165 per person each year and almost $NZ5.23 billion per year in Australia.
Bullying hit costs because of decreases in productivity due to worker absenteeism, staff turnover, lower staff satisfaction and time spent investigating bullying.
He said workplace bullying in New Zealand could be "a billion-dollar problem".
"Who knows how much this is actually costing organisations? It must be a terrific amount ... Minimum it's a multimillion-dollar problem, it could easily be a billion-dollar problem in New Zealand. That's not taking into account all the indirect costs."
He wants changes to health and safety laws to combat workplace bullying alongside harassment and discrimination.
The report was commissioned by the Labour Department.Minister of Labour Kate Wilkinson said it was "an interesting piece of research" but employment courts were able to deal with bullying through personal grievance claims.
"Producing some sort of definition in legislation would be complex and more than likely ineffective," she said.
David Lowe, of the Employers and Manufacturers Association, was sceptical of the survey, saying the "negative acts" research question was too wide.
"What people would normally describe as bullying and `two negative acts in the workplace' are not one and the same," Lowe said.
"If somebody had said to the person, `you're not doing well enough, you need to do it better', and told them that twice in one week, that might amount to bullying under this survey, but it is not bullying, it is simply running your business."
The survey also posed a more direct "self-report" question asking whether respondents felt they were being bullied either "several times a week" or "almost daily" which yielded a smaller figure of 3.9 per cent.
Wilkinson said it was naive to believe bullying did not occur "quite regularly" in workplaces.
Lowe agreed if bullying existed it needed to be addressed.
The Labour Department said it would use the findings to produce fact sheets and other "guidance material" to help employers and staff deal with bullying.
- The Dominion Post