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Preventing workplace bullying is possible

Preventing workplace bullying is possible

Professor Michelle Tuckey

‘We can absolutely prevent bullying,’ says Professor Michelle Tuckey. ‘Prevention is possible.’

A professor of work and organisational psychology at the University of South Australia, Professor Tuckey’s research focuses on workplace bullying, specifically in shifting the way that it’s understood and tackled by organisations – from approaching it as an interpersonal problem where the emphasis is on responding to bullying behaviour, to addressing it as an organisational issue where the focus is on identifying and mitigating the causes of bullying within work environments, systems and processes.

‘It’s very common to have a workplace bullying policy, anti-bullying training and complaints mechanisms,’ she says. ‘We’ve got to have those remedies but they all focus on bullying behaviour, which is the end point when the system goes wrong. Through my work, I want to shift the thinking forward – way forward: what can we do to build a healthier work environment so there’s fewer opportunities for bullying to show up in the first place?’

Professor Tuckey will be speaking at the ANMF (Vic Branch) Psychological hazards in healthcare conference on how risk management and intervention can be proactively used to prevent workplace bullying.

‘I’ll be talking about a risk management intervention and risk audit tool which are the culmination of 10 years of work,’ she says. ‘I think what our research offers is hope,’ she adds.

‘I’m not sure if we can eradicate bullying entirely,’ Professor Tuckey explains. ‘But we can absolutely prevent it. Prevention is possible. That’s what my research offers to organisations: a tried and tested, practical approach that can be used to prevent workplace bullying.’

In developing the tool, Professor Tuckey identified multiple risk areas that cluster into three domains:

  1. how working hours are coordinated and administrated. This includes:
    • rosters and schedules
    • pay and leave entitlements.
  2. how work performance is managed. This means that:
    • people need to have clear job roles and good processes for evolving those roles
    • people have to have the right training and access to ongoing training
    • tasks and workloads need to be allocated fairly and transparently
    • how performance – and underperformance – is monitored and managed, and the feedback that’s given, has to be done well and fairly.
  3. Relationships
    • is there favouritism?
    • are workplace relationships fair?
    • how are workplace relationships shaped at an individual level, at a group level etc?
    • are there physically safe working conditions?
    • is there general support for mental health at work?

‘If these areas of people and task management aren’t done well, they can be used to bully others, or bullying can show up in those spaces,’ Professor Tuckey explains. ‘Bullying rates, of course, are a lagging indicator: they tell us where we’ve already got a problem. The risk audit tool shows us which factors can eventually result in the problem of bullying, and then we can make changes to those areas.’

And although the tool is designed to be proactive, it is also proving effective in a reactive setting, where bullying already exists. ‘The reason why it works in those situations as well is because it tackles bullying as a system issue – where bullying has been flourishing in that system for a long time, we come in and unpack the system and rebuild it from the bottom up to make these positive changes. So we’re able to unstick some sticky problems.’

Professor Tuckey’s ultimate goal is for workplace bullying to be prioritised and proactively managed as an occupational health and safety issue. When bullying risks are reduced, she says, the whole workplace culture improves.

‘Bullying is just one way that an unhealthy work environment can show up: it might also show up in absenteeism, or lack of morale, in stress claims or poor performance. By making changes to the building blocks of a healthy workplace, we can not only reduce bullying, we can actually build a more positive, mentally healthy culture too.’