Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Bullies scourge of workplace

New research reveals that being victimised trumps all the positives about your job.
Kiwi researchers have surveyed more than 800 people across the New Zealand workforce to investigate the effects of workplace bullying. Photo / iStock
Kiwi researchers have surveyed more than 800 people across the New Zealand workforce to investigate the effects of workplace bullying. Photo / iStock

Being passionate about your job and having great colleagues isn't enough to lift the burden of having a bully in the office, new research shows.

Kiwi researchers have surveyed more than 800 people across the New Zealand workforce to investigate the effects of workplace bullying.

Specifically, they sought to ask whether good things about a job could be enough to counter the negatives of bullying.

But Auckland University's Dr Helena Cooper Thomas and Waikato University's Dr Maree Roche found the strain of being bullied trumped all.

They explored the pros that surrounded high engagement with work, along with the benefits of what organisational behaviour researchers call "conservation of resources".

"The idea is that, over time, if you are someone who has got good resources - things like autonomy at work, good social relationships with colleagues and a supportive supervisor - then you are much better equipped for whatever comes your way at work," Dr Cooper Thomas told the Herald.

In their study, they investigated four resources: "psychological capital", which measures self-confidence, hope and resilience, "ethical leadership" from managers, and wellbeing and the view that the person is valued and supported by their company.

"The thinking was that good engagement would enhance those resources and bullying would decrease them, but that, in the end, hopefully the engagement would offset the loss of bullying," Dr Cooper Thomas said.

"Unfortunately, however, it doesn't. When you add bullying into the mix, engagement isn't doing anything."

Further, suffering bullying, or constantly feeling isolated or victimised at work, meant those resources were being depleted over time, she said.

The study, the findings of which were presented to a bullying conference last week, was part of a longitudinal research programme and compared the new findings to results of a similar previous survey.

Meeting the criterion of experiencing bullying included experiencing at least two negative acts, such as feeling excluded or people making unreasonable demands, at least twice a week at work over a six-month period.

Of a sample that represented 19 industries, and a broad reflection of the Kiwi workforce, around 16 per cent reported being bullied.

That was in line with findings of a 2010 study with the same research team including Massey University and several Australian universities, that showed 18 per cent of respondents reporting workplace bullying.

Interestingly, research at the conference by one of the keynote speakers, Associate Professor Michelle Tuckey from the University of South Australia, found there was little difference in rates across occupations.

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But in some sectors more organisations were having difficulties, such as healthcare and education.

"I think the main message is that bullying is a really big problem, and it's not just about personalities, it's about a poor work environment that allows bad behaviour to flourish," Dr Cooper Thomas said.

She encouraged companies to make use of new guidelines from WorkSafe NZ that set out how to combat bullying and calculate the impact it was having on their business.

While the toll of workplace bullying on New Zealand's economy remains poorly understood, in Australia it's been estimated at between $6 and $36 billion.

What is workplace bullying?

• According to Worksafe New Zealand, workplace bullying is "repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety".

• Repeated behaviour is persistent and can involve a range of actions over time, while unreasonable behaviour means actions that a reasonable person in the same circumstances would see as unreasonable. It includes victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person.

• People experiencing workplace bullying are encouraged to find out what their organisation's internal policies are and follow them. Alternatively, they could talk to the person directly, lay a complaint, speak with their manager or HR department, or seek expert advice from outside the organisation.

- NZ Herald

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