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.