The Guardian October 25,2000


Being bossed around is bad for your health

Changes at work brought about by deregulation, privatisation, 
restructuring, downsizing and technological change have contributed to an 
erosion of working conditions for many Australians. Casualisation and job 
insecurity create a climate where people are increasingly powerless and at 
risk from being bullied. The Australian Council of Trade Unions has begun a 
campaign, with the backing of state trades and labour councils, to 
highlight employers taking advantage of these conditions and making life a 
hell for a growing number of workers.

The campaign aims to raise awareness of bullying as a serious health and 
safety hazard and address the popular perception of bullying as exclusively 
persecuting and ganging up on an individual.

Most bullying is not so obvious as that  bossing people around, 
intimidating or threatening them or keeping them under constant work and 
time pressure is also bullying. It is characterised mostly by a combination 
of the following conditions:

* Unreasonable demands and impossible targets;
* Restrictive and petty work rules;
* Being required to perform tasks without adequate training;
* Being forced to stay back to finish work or additional tasks;
* Compulsory overtime, unfair rostering or allocation of work;
* Constant intrusive surveillance or monitoring;
* No say in how your job is done;
* Interference with personal belongings or sabotage of work;
* Shouting or abusive language;
* Open or implied threat of the sack or demotion;
* Oppressive, unhappy work environment;
* People afraid to speak up about conditions, behaviours or health and 
safety.

Those seen to be most vulnerable include young workers, apprentices and 
trainees, women, older workers, and people from non-English speaking 
backgrounds who may experience sexual and/or racist harassment. However, 
bullying can happen to anyone. It occurs across all industries and in all 
professions.

Health

Bullying causes a range of symptoms similar to stress, including headaches, 
sleep difficulties, skin rashes, loss of confidence, tearfulness, 
difficulty concentrating, gastronomical problems and nausea.

At worst it can result in serious health problems such as stress-related 
illness, anxiety and depression, suicidal thoughts and heart disease.

Under occupational health and safety legislation employers have a legal 
duty to control all health and safety hazards in the workplace. This 
includes organisational structures and behaviours which may lead to 
bullying. There is no excuse for causing or allowing bullying.

The ACTU campaign also aims to raise awareness among health professionals 
so that they consider bullying and the stress it causes as a possible cause 
of ill-health in their patients and occupational health and safety 
authorities look seriously at the health and safety effects of all forms of 
bullying and harassment at work and devise strategies to address them.

Most importantly, employees can act together to stop bullying at work.

True stories

Taking it out on the workers: Workers at a medium-sized technical 
equipment plant which was having commercial difficulties reported health 
problems including sleeplessness, distress and increased alcohol 
consumption.

Employees were yelled at and subjected to abusive language, overloaded with 
work, and worked large amounts of unpaid overtime.

Workers who complained about bullying were sacked or isolated at work. One 
worker's professional credibility was repeatedly attacked, apparently 
triggered by rejection of sexual advances. The worker left and is unable to 
return because of health problems.

Bullying among the bananas: A caller to the ACTU helpline (1300 362 
223) reported that unreasonable demands, threatening behaviour, shouted 
swearing insults, feeling unsafe and afraid to speak out, are all features 
of her former workplace  a large fruit processing and packing company.

All the workers, who are mostly casuals with high job insecurity, are 
subjected to bullying by management.

Junior staff harassed: When witnesses are not present a young female 
staff member is harassed by a senior manager of a major department store 
because of her physical appearance. Fear of losing employment has prevented 
her from lodging a formal complaint. 

Measures used by the manager include blaming her for errors that were not 
her fault, continually changing instructions, not being satisfied with her 
work which was previously considered more than acceptable, and continued 
focus on attendance, despite willingness to work after hours.

The young woman has now joined the union and sought assistance.

Would you like bullying with your coffee?: A young woman working 
full-time at a large cafe in metropolitan Melbourne discovered that all the 
employees were being underpaid.

She raised this in an anonymous letter to her employer. She was pulled 
aside the following day by one of the owners of the business and asked if 
she had written the letter. She confirmed she had and from that day on she 
was bullied.

This took the form of not being spoken to except when being given 
instructions; rostered lunch breaks so she ate alone, whereas previously 
all staff members had lunch breaks together; being made to wash dishes 
three to four hours at a time, whereas previously it was a maximum of half 
an hour; threatened with dismissal if she "whinged" or "spread rumours".

Eventually she was sacked, the owners claiming she was being "disruptive". 
An unfair dismissal application has been lodged.

High level of verbal abuse: In a relatively small public service 
workplace the general manager constantly verbally abuses staff.

Those who have stood up to the manager have been retrenched or sacked. Many 
of the staff are on short term contracts so they are unwilling to support 
each other for fear of non-renewal of contracts. Work overload is common.

Sacking threat as "group therapy": A linen manufacturer who was 
found to have wrongfully dismissed a worker admitted that the threat of the 
sack was a motivation technique that had been used by the firm for ten 
years.

The Industrial Relations Commission found that the worker's failure to 
"apologise" for her low productivity on a particular day was not a valid 
reason for termination.

The employer had given notice to the worker on 12 separate occasions for 
alleged "bad performance", but on each occasion before the notice expired 
her performance had improved and employment continued.

The employer told the Commission he had given another employee notice of 
termination 27 times over a ten-year period, without actually sacking her.

The Commission asked about the employer's "motivation speeches" in which he 
threatened "if it's unsatisfactory you will be sacked, instant dismissal". 
Employer: "That was group therapy." Commissioner: "What I want to know is, 
you said at one stage that you thought that terminating them was a bit of a 
prod to keep their production up. Is that correct?"

Employer: "Yes, I think that ... it's not probably appropriate by using the 
word `prod'. It's a motivator."

Whistle blowing

The Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers' Union have taken an 
inventive approach to the bullying of staff by a manager at the Gazebo 
Hotel in Sydney.

The executive housekeeper at the hotel has carried out a campaign of fear 
and intimidation against staff, who are mostly from non-English speaking 
backgrounds.

The dispute is over Olympics pay bonuses and the sacking of 15 workers who 
are part of the housekeeping department which is about to be outsourced.

Most of the workers are recent migrants and women and their award wages as 
hotel workers are around $11 per hour for full-timers. The union has 
encouraged the workers to stick together and they have taken strike action 
during the course of the dispute.

"We've gone with the ACTU's line about bullying at work", said union 
organiser Rebecca Reilly. "We've given all the workers a whistle, so that 
if this guy comes near them, or they feel threatened in any way, they blow 
the whistle.

"It will deter him, but it will also alert hotel guests."

What can be done

Everyone has the right to dignity and respect, and to a safe and healthy 
environment at work. The ACTU's campaign outlines a number of things 
workers can do to deal with the problem of employer bullying:

* Get the issues out in the open by talking to fellow workers;
* Hold a meeting, away from the workplace if necessary;
* Get the workplace health and safety representative, OHS committee or 
other delegates to take up the issues;
* Contact your union for assistance.

Use these processes to identify the most important issues, to keep records 
of incidents so they are not forgotten or misrepresented, to raise issues 
with the employer through workplace representatives, and to arrange 
counselling and other assistance for distressed workers.

The workplace is no place for bullying.

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