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Workplace bullying costs global employers billions of dollars every year in absenteeism, stress leave and lost productivity. Researchers from Australia have identified major risk areas for workplace bullying embedded in day-to-day practices.

In a paper published last month in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, lead author University of South Australia Professor Michelle Tuckey and colleagues from the Centre for Workplace Excellence, the University of Queensland and Auburn University in the U.S. offer a new way of tackling bullying at work.

They analyzed 342 real-life bullying complaints lodged with SafeWork SA, 60 percent of them from female employees. The highest number of complaints were from health and community services, property and business, and the retail sector. The complaints revealed the risk areas for bullying in organizations.

“The biggest risk of bullying is how people are managed day to day,” said Tuckey. “Some of that comes from the structures and processes in organizations, and we really need to put our efforts there if we want to get effective prevention.”

“It can be tempting to see bullying as a behavioral problem between individuals, but the evidence suggests that bullying actually reflects structural risks in the organizations themselves,” she said.

The major organizational risks have now been identified and built into a screening tool that has been validated in a hospital setting. “The tool predicts both individual-level and team-level workplace bullying risks that jeopardize the psychological health of employees,” said Tuckey.

Existing strategies, such as anti-bullying policies, bullying awareness training, incident reporting and investigating complaints, focus on behavior between individuals and overlook workplace structures.

“Workplace bullying undermines the functioning of employees and organizations alike. It leads to mental health problems, post-traumatic stress symptoms, emotional exhaustion, poor job satisfaction, high staff turnover, low productivity, sleep problems and even suicide risks,” said Tuckey.

The analysis showed that when supervisors are involved in coordinating and administering working hours, perceptions of bullying were linked to ineffective people management practices such as under-rostering, underpayment, and giving employees inadequate input into and control over their work schedules. Complaints also revealed unequal and inefficient access to leave, breaks and other entitlements.

As far as managing work performance, risky practices include altering job roles/functions without consultation; lack of clarity about expectations; failure to give employees guidance or direction; insufficient training; lack of opportunities for growth and development; unmanageable workloads and unreasonable deadlines; setting unachievable targets or goals; failure to provide guidance regarding how to address underperformance.

Source: University of South Australia