Much of our health and safety regulation deals with symptoms without looking at causes argues ACTU Assistant Secretary Richard Marles.

The problem with occupational health and safety regulation in this country is
that it deals with symptoms rather than causes. For example, the national
strategy of the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission identified
that “hitting or being hit by an object” is one of the
priority causes of occupational health and safety problems in this country. And
yet if you think about it this does not describe a cause of an injury at all.
There are many reasons why people may be hit by an object. This actually
describes an injury, and indeed the description is drawn from the National
Compensation Data which deals with injuries.

So much of our OH&S regulation deals with these symptoms without looking
at causes.

“Bullying is a huge problem”

And so when we stand here today and we talk about occupational bullying we
are actually talking for the first time about one of the major causes of
occupational health and safety problems in this country today. And I applaud the
LHMU and Holmesglen TAFE for dealing with this critical issue.

WorkSafe Victoria defines bullying as “repeated, unreasonable
behaviour directed toward an employee, or group of employees, that creates a
risk to health and safety
.” While the definition may be technical I
think we all know what it means to be bullied in the workplace.

Bullying is a huge problem. The European Union estimates that 9% of the
workforce in any 12 month period is bullied. This amounts to 12 million people
every year. They also point out that cultural issues mean that many people
don’t report cases of bullying. So many people suspect that the rate at
which bullying occurs is in fact far higher. Indeed, various surveys in
Scandinavia, the USA and the UK say that as many as 38% of the workforce are
bullied in any 12 month period.

The Beyond Bullying Association of Australia estimates that 2.5 to 5 million
workers have been bullied at some point in their career. That means that most of
us can expect to be bullied in our working lifetime. And to me that makes sense.
I have certainly been bullied at work. And indeed most people I know have.

In the year 2000 the ACTU surveyed more than many union members across
Australia. In that survey 70% of people who had been bullied reported that the
bullying had been carried out by a Manager. In 5% of cases the bullying had
actually lead to physical assault. In 44% of cases people had taken time off and
yet in only 4% of cases a workers compensation claim was made.

These are a lot of figures to digest. What they say is that the size of this
problem is simply enormous. But most significantly this problem is seriously
under reported. Hardly anyone pursues their rights about this issue through the
normal compensating authorities.

The impact of bullying on people is horrendous

The impact of bullying on people is horrendous.

Obviously for those 5% of people who are physically assaulted there are
physical effects to being bullied. But in the main bullying causes stress and
with this come all the difficult stress related symptoms such as headaches,
depression, a lack of concentration, an increase in the rate at which mistakes
are made, and an increase in the dependence upon alcohol and drugs.

These, however, are but a few of the symptoms of stress. In a previous life
dealing with Workcover claims as a lawyer I met many people who suffered from
severe stress. And when you see somebody who has had a bad case of stress you
see it as a completely debilitating condition. For many their concentration had
been so severely impaired that it was impossible even to watch the TV. At its
worse people suicide because of stress. And people are suiciding because of the
bullying which is causing that stress.

“[G]iven the financial cost to our country [bullying] has … become a
major public policy headache”

Rob Hulls, the Victorian Minister responsible for occupational health and
safety in launching this guidance note on occupational bullying said that cases
of bullying were on the rise. He also said that while it was difficult to put an
exact cost on the adverse consequences of bullying in Australia, some
researchers have suggested that it may amount to as much as $3 billion annually.
This is a figure so large that it is almost impossible to get your head around.
But to put it in context the entire budget for the state of Victoria every year
is about $25 billion. Not only is occupational bullying a large health and
safety problem for those who are its victims, given the financial cost to our
country it has also become a major public policy headache.

“[T]he kind of factors which make bullying more likely”

The European agency for safety and health at work has done some examination
of the kind of factors which make bullying more likely in a workplace.

Some are factors which you would expect such as poor management, an
organisational culture that condones bullying, and poor relationships between
workers. But significantly there are a set of other factors such as abrupt
organisational change, insecure employment, and extreme work demands which also
give rise to bullying. These factors are associated with the changing nature of
work. In the 21st century work is more pressurised, it is less secure
and there is change all about us. All of these things are creating an
environment which is more and more conducive to bullying. It should be no
surprise therefore that bullying is on the rise.

“In Australia not enough is being done to stop the problem of

In Australia not enough is being done to stop the problem of bullying. There
is some sporadic guidance material such as the guidance note I have referred to
in Victoria and a similar one in South Australia. But in our view there needs to
be a general obligation in Occupational Health and Safety Acts around Australia
which specifically deals with the great causes of occupational health and safety
such as fatigue, stress and bullying. And backing up this obligation needs to be
a national code of practice which provides guidance consistantly across the
country for all employers about how to deal with bullying in the workplace.

Bullying is a major problem. It is a problem that we will all be dealing with
in the OH&S world for many years to come. But it is a problem that we are
simply going to have to solve if we are at all hopeful of improving this
countries poor occupational health and safety record.

Richard Marles, Assistant Secretary, ACTU. LHMU Bullying And Harassment
Seminar, Holmesglen TAFE, Moorabbin. Wednesday 12 November 2003.