One in five Kiwis bullied at work

NZPA April 15, 2010, 6:27 am

New Zealand has some of the highest rates of workplace bullying in the world, with nearly one in five employees being subjected to overbearing or belittling behaviour at work, new research shows.

A survey of 1728 workers in the health, education, travel and hospitality sectors found 18 percent had been bullied, while 75 percent had suffered workplace stress.

The research, funded by the Department of Labour and the Health Research Council, was conducted by a multidisciplinary team from Auckland, Massey and Waikato universities, and Birbeck University in London.

Study leader Tim Bentley, associate head of Massey University's school of management, said levels of workplace stress and bullying were greater than expected.

Bullying was "notably higher" in the health and education sectors, where ineffective leadership was one of the main causes.

The researchers also found television representations of foul-mouthed and abusive chefs may not be far from the truth, with belittling behaviour an accepted and "normalised" part of hospitality culture.

"Bullying is happening and it is not being addressed. It has long been accepted that this is the way of working -- if you cannot stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," Prof Bentley said.

Employers across all the surveyed sectors had a limited understanding of the problem and how to address it, the research found.

It also found reporting structures were ineffective, with bullying being addressed as part of wider harassment or violence initiatives.

"There needs to be a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying and this requires a cultural change," Prof Bentley said.

"We need to be confident enough to challenge people if we see this happening and strategies need to be identified to prevent it in the workplace."

The Department of Labour's head of employment relations, Lesley Haines, said the research sounded a warning that employers should ensure robust practices and procedures to deal with bullying were in place.

Although the research did not suggest bullying was widespread across all workplaces, employers should not be complacent, she said.

"They have a duty under the Health and Safety in Employment Act to provide a healthy and safe workplace. This includes having a workplace in which bullying is not tolerated," Ms Haines said.

Employers should have clear systems in place to deal with complaints and ensure they are investigated impartially, she said.

Employees who feel unable to make a complaint should seek support from family or friends, discuss the matter with their union, or seek assistance from the department, Ms Haines said.

The Labour Department offers resources and mediation services to help employers deal with bullying, and was developing a fact sheet to provide guidance in dealing with the issue, Ms Haines said.

The findings of the study will be distributed to industry groups, and the Labour Department fact sheet will be made available to employers and staff.