Legislative Reform Needed to Stop Bullying in the Public Sector - by Paul Judge

There is a growing body of literature showing the detrimental harm that bullying has on the running of the institution and on its overall effectiveness and functioning, especially on the morale of its employees.

OPINION: I have intimate knowledge of what has been revealed by a Tertiary Education Union (TEU) survey into staff wellbeing, elaborated on by TEU national president Sandra Grey, and also by the PSA report from last year that found a shocking 40 per cent of civil servants had experienced workplace bullying.

The effects of workplace bullying can be longstanding and have devastating consequences for self-esteem, stress and physical health. There is often a snowballing effect, a downward spiral of stress-induced mistakes that lead to further bullying. There is nobody to turn to, leading to a paralysing anxiety and lethargy, made worse by a fear of speaking out.

I know the very real dangers of speaking out, of drawing attention to myself as a potential critic of the hierarchical structures and top-down, punitive management style that has infected the public sector, but since I am no longer employed in my chosen profession I feel it would be irresponsible of me if I did not share my thoughts on what needs to be done to address the rot.

Studies from Australia and Europe have identified the high-risk occupations and they are all within the public sector – administration, defence, health and education. The jobs associated with bullying involve a large degree of emotional labour, leaving employees more vulnerable to psychological abuse. This makes it even more abhorrent that human resources management practices in these professions can be so destructive of staff wellbeing. These are jobs, after all, demanding a huge amount of goodwill and are essentially altruistic in nature.

The Health & Safety at Work Act was redrawn in 2015 but is still very vague on the issue of psychological harm in the workplace. There is good groundwork for change provided by the documents on this subject by Worksafe NZ. Though this documentation has been developed, the legislation remains focused on the physical safety issues with only weak and obscure relevance to mental harm and its causes. The nature of mental harm and mental well-being needs to have a clear and discernible focus.

There needs to be clear, measurable and identifiable standards around bullying and harassment. These standards need to be legally enforceable and the necessity to comply should be predicated on education programmes across the related industries.

In my experience harassment and bullying was repeated and ongoing and seemed endemic to the workplace culture, supported, condoned and institutionalised.

Institutions are defensive and do not admit a problem. Bullying and harassment occur in the difference between the manager "managing" and the staff being overly "micro-managed". Institutions should be concerned with liability for harm over these micro-managing processes. Employers should be aware of the growing body of literature showing the detrimental harm these practices have on the running of the institution and on its overall effectiveness and functioning, especially on the morale of its employees.

Sandra Grey points to the contradiction in the tertiary sector between the staff member's disallowed ability to critique and the branding of "critical thinking" used to sell the programmes to students.

There is another contradiction that should be mentioned; staff are expected to care for and mentor students and yet don't get the same from management – at best staff are patronised and devalued, at worst bullied and harassed with micro-managing disciplinary processes.

In many cases the mental health and well-being issues far outweigh the reasons for discipline in the first place. There needs to be legislation in place to identify when the HR practices in regard to the mental health of the employee amount to criminal negligence.

It is also very important that an independent body is set up for employees to go to in the instances of unfair disciplinary practices.

An inquiry needs to be held into the money that is spent by institutions on legal fees relating to employment issues. When an employee, with limited financial resources, is forced to resort to legal counsel the institution can resort to unlimited funds to employ a full legal team to counter the employee's case. The source of these funds and how much is spent need to be made accountable and transparent to the public.

Accountability would mean the employers would not resort to such measures that so obviously constitute an unfair power imbalance to the disadvantage of the employee and the reputations of the institutions would be justly questioned.

Given the concerns over our appalling rates of domestic violence, it seems the refusal to acknowledge workplace bullying leaves a huge gap in our understanding of the context of domestic violence. And how can we address the growing problem of cyber bullying and schoolyard bullying if workplace bullying is the model?

The declining standards in our tertiary institutions cannot be separated from this matrix of institutionalised bullying, devalued and insecure staff and the dominant agenda of business fundamentalism that is driving it all.

This article was originally published in on 20 April 2017. Paul Judge worked as a tutor/lecturer in the tertiary education sector for 17 years before returning to secondary school teaching. He is currently writing a paper on management practice and the philosophy of education.

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