Tackling the root causes of workplace bullying

Professor Michelle Tuckey
March 30, 2023

This is a guest post by Professor Michelle Tuckey from UniSA’s Centre for Workplace Excellence. Michelle has spent the last decade researching the root causes of bullying and harassment in workplaces, and this research has been applied by health and safety regulatory bodies nationally and internationally. She is now partnering with Teamgage to deliver our Healthy Workplaces by Design program.

The biggest myth about workplace bullying

One of the biggest myths about workplace bullying is that it’s a problem of individual bullies – bad apples in the barrel. The research record tells a different story, showing clearly that bullying is a systemic organisational problem – in other words, it’s actually bad barrels that let the apples rot.

The work environment

The causes of workplace bullying, like other psychosocial hazards, stem from the work environment, grounded in the design and management of work and its social and organisational contexts.

This means that prevention strategies focussed on bullying behaviour – anti-bullying policies, education, and assertiveness training – cannot solve the bullying problem within our workplaces. These kinds of remedies have an important place as part of a comprehensive anti-bullying approach, but they can never eradicate bullying without also tackling the systemic factors that enable it to take root.

Tackling the systemic factors

As an example, when understaffing and high work pressure combine, it’s common to see bullying behaviour directed at dedicated employees – in a spill over of tension or as a way of getting things done.

If these systemic causes of bullying are ignored, bullied employees are likely to leave the organisation to work elsewhere. Turnover only worsens staffing and workload issues and ultimately creates greater risk of bullying, sparking an ongoing negative cycle.

Against this backdrop, even the best bullying policies, education, and skills training are unlikely to have much of a preventative impact. With those anti-bullying ingredients in place, however, it is possible to unlock a step-change in prevention by improving work design and working practices at team and organisational levels.

A healthier workplace by design

That’s where our Healthy Workplaces by Design program comes in.

Rather than relying on bullying complaints to take corrective action at an individual level, the program proactively assesses and manages bullying risk at a work systems level. It begins with an audit of 10 work environment factors to identify the areas of greatest risk for bullying and other psychosocial hazards within a team or organisation.

The risk audit tool used in the program was developed through several years of research and validation, beginning with an analysis of 342 workplace bullying complaints lodged with a state work health and safety regulator. Based on the risk audit, co-design processes help staff and managers collaborate to develop and implement risk control measures that operate at the root cause level.

Fewer bullying complaints and improved job performance

Our Healthy Workplaces by Design program takes around six months and, in that short time, is effective at changing work design, working practices, and other social and organisational factors in the workplace to reduce bullying risk. Ultimately, as our evaluation research demonstrates, this means fewer bullying complaints, lower job demands, and improved job performance.

As one staff member said about the program: “It’s the little things we now do differently, we’re seeing a change in culture, for everyone not just team leaders.”

Learn more

Visit our Healthy Workplaces by Design program page or simply get in touch.

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