A Survey of Workplace Bullying in a Health Sector Organisation

By Rutherford, Alison; Rissel, Chris | Australian Health Review, September 3, 2004 | Go to article overview

A Survey of Workplace Bullying in a Health Sector Organisation


Rutherford, Alison, Rissel, Chris, Australian Health Review


Abstract

The purpose of this study was to explore the frequency, nature and extent of workplace bullying in a health care organisation in New South Wales. The survey methodology achieved a 79% response rate (n=311). Overall, 155 respondents (50%) reported that they had experienced one or more forms of bullying behaviour in the past 12 months. The largest reported source of workplace bullying was peers or fellow workers (49%), followed by clients (42%) and managers or supervisors (38%). Only 36% of respondents who had been bullied had formally reported the episode. The level of bullying reported was unexpectedly high and will require development of strategies to address the issue.

Aust Health Rev 2004: 28(1): 65-72

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying has increasingly been identified as a serious occupational health and safety issue. This paper describes the results of a survey of workplace bullying conducted in a health service organisation. The survey was informed by a review of the relevant literature described below.

Most commentators agree that workplace bullying is widespread, covert and insidious and can have serious long-term effects on victims, organisations and the perpetrators themselves (Farrell 1999; Cusack 2000; Mayhew & Chappell 2001a). Recognition and management of bullying in the workplace is complicated by lack of consistent definition. Several agencies have created their own definitions, for example, the Victorian WorkCover Authority has proposed the following definition in its draft Code of Practice for the Prevention of Bullying and Violence in the Workplace:

Workplace bullying is the repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee, or group of employees, that creates a risk to health and safety (Victorian WorkCover Authority 2001).

'Unreasonable behaviour' is defined as behaviour that a reasonable person would expect to victimise, humiliate, undermine or threaten them; and 'health' includes mental and physical health (Victorian WorkCover Authority, 2001). NSW has recognised that workplace bullying is a significant issue in the health sector with the publication of a discussion paper on bullying in the health workforce (Mayhew & Chappell 2001a).

Rayner and Hoel (1997) defined five categories of workplace bullying:

* Threats to professional status (eg, belittling, humiliation);

* Threats to personal standing (eg, teasing, insults);

* Isolation (eg, withholding information);

* Overwork (eg, impossible deadlines, unnecessary disruptions); and

* Destabilisation (eg, meaningless tasks, shifting of goal posts).

Michelson (2001) argued that taking too narrow a view of bullying works against real organisational change. Michelson defines bullying as:

... repeated attempts to manipulate and destabilise an employee's professional or personal standing ... spreading malicious rumours, social exclusion or isolation, withholding important information ... requiring workers to perform meaningless tasks ... setting impossible deadlines, excessive and intrusive surveillance ... and workplace expectations of self-sacrifice.

Most definitions of workplace bullying focus on the negative effect on the recipient, not the intention of the bully or the persistence of the bullying behaviour (Quine 1999). Despite the lack of a legal definition, workplaces have a legal responsibility to protect their employees from harassment, including bullying.1

How common is workplace bullying?

In part because of problems with definitions, comprehensive and unequivocal data on the prevalence of workplace bullying do not exist. However, studies across the industrialised world suggest that physical violence in the workplace is rare, but verbal abuse and bullying are common (Cusack 2000). A recent European review of bullying concluded that at least 10% of employees can be considered as currently subjected to workplace bullying (Hoel, Sparks & Cooper 2001). …

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