Systemic Change to Address Workplace Bullying - by Laura Walters for Newsroom

LA comment: we have highlighted parts in red that will be included in an upcoming blog.

Businesses and government systems are not doing enough to identify and address workplace bullying and harassment, and the harm it can cause

A first-of-its-kind research report says more needs to be done to identify and respond to the widespread issue of workplace bullying and harassment.

A new MBIE report highlights the prevalence of workplace bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, and the long-term trauma associated with this problem.

The report says changes need to be made both within individual organisations and at a systems level.

While the research is varied and patchy, New Zealand has been named one of the worst countries in the world for workplace bullying and harassment.

As many as one in five workers are affected each year, with women and minorities experiencing the highest levels of bullying.

Māori report a higher incidence than Pākehā (12.7 percent compared to 10.8 percent). Migrants, trans and non-binary New Zealanders and people with disabilities are also at relatively higher risk of bullying and harassment in the workplace.

When someone experiences bullying and harassment at work, the impacts often go beyond the work environment, and can impact their wellbeing in a broader sense through health issues, ranging from anxiety and self-esteem concerns, to stress, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide attempts. 

These can limit an individual’s ability to remain in paid work or participate in society.

The report noted workplace bullying and harassment played out in a wider societal context, and referenced New Zealand's high rates of bullying at school.

While this work programme specifically looked at how changes to systems and processes could improve prevention, early identification and resolution regarding issues in the workplace , it acknowledged that addressing bullying, harassment and sexual harassment across the board needed attention at a societal level.

“Professionally it has affected my enjoyment of my job ... At times it is intolerable. The behaviour has caused me stress which has spilled over into my personal life too.”

Earlier in the week, Newsroom reported on the cases of two senior social workers who say they were consistently targeted at work by managers. Neither had been successful in seeking acknowledgment or compensation for the trauma they endured.

Both women now suffer severe mental health issues, including anxiety, insomnia and PTSD. They have lost their jobs and are unlikely to be able to work again.

Unlike some other countries, New Zealanders do not have access to workers' compensation if they are unable to continue paid work due to a (non-ACC) work-related health issue.

Both women are now experiencing financial hardship, and face losing their homes.

They say the lengthy, adversarial process of escalating a bullying claim is re-traumatising. Even mediation does not feel like a low-level resolution process, but a formal, adversarial response - something identified as a concern in the new report.

They describe their difficulties in accessing justice and support, and are calling for changes to the systems that prevent and respond to workplace bullying, and those that should support people who have experienced psychosocial harm.

While the experiences of these women were severe, many others in New Zealand have experienced significant ongoing harm due to workplace bullying and harassment.

One person who spoke to the report’s researchers said: “Professionally it has affected my enjoyment of my job ... At times it is intolerable. The behaviour has caused me stress which has spilled over into my personal life too.”

Another said: “I feel disempowered ... I am very anxious about work. This affects my sleep, which makes me worry more ... I find it harder to trust people in general, and am more defensive ... I am less patient with my children, as I feel so stressed. It feels like being trapped in an abusive relationship ... I often dream of leaving.”

“The issues are complex, span employment and health and safety systems, and connect with wider matters around mental health, human rights and crime.”

MBIE chief executive Carolyn Tremain said workplace bullying and harassment was a complex problem, which was prevalent in New Zealand and internationally. 

“The issues are complex, span employment and health and safety systems, and connect with wider matters around mental health, human rights and crime.”

Taking steps to prevent bullying and harassment should be part of every business’s health and safety management, as all employers were responsible for providing safe work environments and managing risks of both physical and mental harm, she said.

However, the continued high rates of bullying and harassment at work suggested New Zealand’s systems and processes needed to be improved.

This is believed to be the first time the Government has had an in-depth look at the issue of bullying and harassment at work.

And the public feedback on the report will be used to guide future policies and changes to health and safety and employment relations systems, to address bullying and harassment at work.

Recent years have seen a growing awareness of these issues in New Zealand, largely owing to high-profile cases such as those at New Zealand Police, Fire and Emergency, the Parliamentary inquiry into workplace culture, Russell McVeagh, and the #MeToo movement generally.

This awareness has led to businesses and workplaces putting in place a variety of procedures to prevent and respond to instances of workplace bullying and harassment.

But despite most businesses having some procedures and policies, this report says the continued prevalence of the problem, and the associated harm, shows more needs to be done, and changes need to be made.

Meanwhile, both employees and employers still struggled to identify and respond to this behaviour.

Employees told researchers they were concerned that rather than focus on resolution, employers often responded to issues as a legal matter, with internal investigations focused on protecting the business. 

Concerns were also raised about the quality and impartiality of independent or private investigators.

“I am deeply traumatised by everything. I do not feel safe ever ... I have to wear shoes I can run away in.”

Businesses said they understood the importance of working through the ‘good faith steps’, but found the requirements difficult to understand. They said if they made a procedural error they worried it would become grounds for a personal grievance.

Concerns were also raised about how long it took to identify and respond to instances of bullying and harassment, and by the time the issue was raised there was less of a chance of resolution and a higher risk of re-traumatisation.

On the flipside, many employees were hesitant when it came to raising an issue as they were concerned it could impact their future employment.

And in many cases affected parties chose to leave their employment rather than raise the issue. 

When an employee did feel the need to escalate their issue up the employment relations pathway, feedback suggested improvements were needed to improve accessibility, reduce associated costs, and reduce the risk of re-traumatisation, the report said.

Sexual harassment were particularly difficult to raise due to their traumatic nature. 

One person who spoke to researchers about their experience of workplace sexual harassment said: “I am deeply traumatised by everything. I do not feel safe ever ... I have to wear shoes I can run away in.”

As well as outlining the New Zealand context, and the concerns raised by those familiar with the issues, the report also identified possible ways to improve systems.

It suggested interfaces between the regulatory systems that currently responded to workplace bullying and harassment could be improved.

For instance, if the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) or the Employment Court identified a potential ongoing safety risk in a particular business, it could potentially refer this to WorkSafe to consider an investigation.

And a related consideration was whether WorkSafe - the entity responsible for enforcing New Zealand’s health and safety legislation - should increase its role in engaging with, and supporting change in, sectors or organisations where an ongoing risk of bullying or harassment had been identified.

The MBIE report was commissioned as part of the Government inquiry into workplace bullying and harassment in New Zealand, and asks people to submit feedback by the end of March, 2021. 

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