Forget the playground, it's the workplace that is rife with bullies, a study shows.

A multi-university study of 1728 education, health, hospitality and travel sector workers found nearly one in five had been bullied at work.

A further 75 per cent of employees said they had suffered workplace stress at some point.

Study leader Tim Bentley, associate head of Massey University's school of management, said bullying in the workplace was high generally, but "notably higher" in the health and education sectors.

That could be attributed to ineffective leadership - something that needed to be addressed, he said.

"It has long been accepted that this is the way of working - if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Auckland, Massey and Waikato universities collaborated on the research, with London's Birkbeck University.

Workplaces Against Violence in Employment director Hadyn Olsen, said workplace bullying was a huge stress factor for many people - the majority of whom chose not to make a complaint or bring up the issue, out of fear of being bullied further.

Mr Olsen said studies by his organisation showed up to 53 per cent of people who do report being bullied got bullied even more.

"And so the stress factor is huge because they don't know when the next situation will be and they don't feel safe," he said.

Mr Olsen said he had dealt with many types of bullying, which include intimidation, behaviour that offends, makes fun, undermines or excludes.

The more severe cases of workplace bullying include sexual harassment.

In one case, a victim decided to make a formal complaint.

A meeting was arranged where the victim and the bully met senior staff, who then went on to reveal in front of the two that a complaint had been made by the victim, against the bully.

When the bully denied the accusation, the victim was not believed by management staff.

The victim suffered more bullying as a consequence.

The research study, funded by the Department of Labour and Health Research Council, also found that employers across all those sectors surveyed did not understand, or know how to address the problem of workplace bullying.

Professor Bentley said there needed to be a cultural change within New Zealand workplaces, with a zero-tolerance policy on bullying.

"We need to be confident enough to challenge people if we see this happening," he said.

"And strategies need to be identified to prevent it in the workplace."

Mr Olsen reiterated the idea, saying many Kiwi employers failed to go through a management development course or programme, which would help them understand the issue and, more importantly, address it.

"Part of the reason that workplace bullying is huge [in New Zealand] is that we don't invest in management development and especially in terms of dealing with conflict," Mr Olsen said.

"Bullying thrives with management that doesn't know how to manage."

- ADDITIONAL REPORTING: NZPA