Workplace Bullying - Who's dimming the lights?

26 October 2017

Chris WebbWe are becoming increasingly aware of the psychosocial risks in the work place such as bullying and the significant impact it has on businesses and most importantly people. Bullying can affect performance, cause disruption in the workplace and cause physical and mental health harm. A Person Conducting Business or Undertaking needs to be aware of their risks and effectively deal with them.

WorkSafe New Zealand’s Good Practice Guidelines, Preventing and Responding to Bullying at Work - For Persons Conducting Business or Undertaking (PCBUs) defines bullying as, “repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can lead to physical or psychological harm”.

What workplace bullying is not, is a one off event where a person may be rude or being unreasonable, differences in opinion, personality clashes (which do not escalate into bullying or violence) or a person whom is being reasonably managed.

Bullying can come during work or after work and from any direction, not limited to mangers or peers, it can also come from subordinates and clients or customers.

This can lead to:

  • Anxiety,
  • Stress,
  • Depression,
  • Poor sleep,
  • Cardiovascular disease,
  • Low self-esteem,
  • Substance abuse, and
  • Social withdraw.

According to the Good Practice Guidelines bullying can be physical, verbal and/or relational/social, but fits into two categories:

  1. Direct and personal, such as verbal abuse, spreading rumours, humiliation, ostracising, theft or interfering with personal belonging or work equipment, etc.
  2. Indirect and task-related such as, setting unachievable tasks, over and under loading of work, withholding or ‘drip feeding’ information, constant criticism of work, etc.

Looking at these examples above, similarities can be drawn to a psychological effect known as ‘The Gaslight Effect’. A term becoming more familiar.

The gaslight effect is a form of psychological abuse where someone gradually and persistently targets a weakness or flaw of a person to manipulate a situation, or, withholding or providing false information and causing that person to second guess themselves, feeling confused and insecure, questioning their version of events, feeling worthless and hopeless.

The perpetrator is expressing a dominance over the victim and the victim unknowingly becomes the victim.

The term Gaslight comes from a 1944 film, ‘Gaslight’ where a husband systematically attempts to alter his wife’s perception of reality, through confusion and manipulation of facts.

An example of this is when a worker accuses a co-worker of failing to do a task or for something that went wrong and recalling specific information about the discussion that was never had, causing the co-worker to question themselves and their memory, often leading them to take responsibility and apologising for something that was never their fault. This is often repeated in a different form or situation by the worker.

Anyone can be a victim of gaslighting no matter age, gender or intelligence and can be present in any type of relationship.

This type of treatment falls within the spectrum of workplace bullying, where it is persistent and repeated behaviour of the perpetrator.

Everybody has a role to play in health and safety at work. The PCBU needs to know the risks of the business. Officers need to ensure that the PCBU is managing those risks effectively and the workers are not exposing themselves and others to risks at work.

A PCBU can manage the risk of bullying in the workplace by:

  • Engagement with the workers is essential to develop policies and procedures regarding bullying in the workplace, and to outline the expectation of acceptable behaviour in the workplace.
  • Provide training, information and supervision. This includes providing training and information to supervisors on how to recognise and deal with bullying.
  • Monitor and review the risk controls to ensure that what is in place remains effective.

When faced with a claim of bullying, a PCBU needs to:

  • Act early, within the established policies and procedure guidelines,
  • Remain neutral, and
  • Provide appropriate support for those involved.

Failing to act on a report of bullying can not only lead to a prosecution but can have far reaching human impacts. PCBUs need to understand the risks and have proper processes in place to eliminate or minimise those risks and ensure that they are managed well.


Chris Webb | Health and Safety Manager | 03 456 1808 | 021 225 8408 | 

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