Workplace bullying

Employees in Queensland have many workplace rights that are enshrined in law. Among the most publicised rights is the right to work in an environment that is free from workplace bullying, discrimination, and harassment.

Workplace bullying can cause serious harm to the mental and physical health of employees. It can also lead to reputational damage, lost productivity and penalties for employers.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed at a worker (or group of workers) that creates a risk to their health and safety.

Such behaviour, whether intentional or not, includes:

  • abusive, insulting, or offensive language or comments;
  • unjustified criticism or complaints;
  • excluding a worker from workplace activities;
  • withholding resources, information or supervision needed to work effectively;
  • setting timelines that are unrealistic or changing constantly;
  • setting tasks that are unreasonably below or beyond a worker’s capabilities;
  • spreading misinformation or malicious rumours; and/or
  • changing workplace arrangements, such as rosters or leave, to deliberately inconvenience a worker.

What are the effects of workplace bullying?

Bullying behaviour can have wide-ranging effects on both a worker and a workplace.

For employees

  • distress;
  • isolation;
  • depression and anxiety;
  • panic attacks and disturbed sleep;
  • loss of confidence and self-esteem;
  • decrease in work performance, concentration and decision-making;
  • deterioration in relationships, both inside and outside the workplace; and
  • physical illness such as headaches, fatigue and high blood pressure.

For employers

  • low staff morale;
  • high staff turnover;
  • high recruitment and training costs;
  • lost productivity;
  • high absenteeism;
  • counselling and mediation costs;
  • workers’ compensation claims and/or legal action;
  • disruption caused by investigation of complaints; and
  • poor public image and reputational damage.

What is not considered workplace bullying?

Not all negative behaviour toward a worker in the workplace may be considered bullying.

Conflict between workers that involves disagreement or difference of opinion is not generally considered bullying.

A workplace is permitted to carry out reasonable management actions including performance management, disciplinary action for misconduct, and informing a worker of unsatisfactory work performance or inappropriate work behaviour. If these actions are not conducted in a reasonable way, however, they may constitute bullying.

Some negative behaviour may not constitute bullying but may instead constitute other unlawful workplace behaviour, such as sexual harassment.

What can workplaces do about bullying?

Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) (the Act), a workplace has a duty to ensure workers are not exposed to health and safety risks. This includes preventing and responding to workplace bullying. A workplace should:

  • respond to a bullying complaint quickly and reasonably, following established workplace policies and procedures;
  • treat every bullying complaint seriously;
  • maintain confidentiality;
  • inform the complainant of progress in attempting to resolve the matter;
  • advise the complainant of support options; and
  • advise the complainant of the outcome, the reasons for it, and about any right of review.
workplace bullying

What can workers do about bullying?

Any worker who experiences workplace bullying should attempt to resolve the complaint with their workplace before taking legal action. Most workplaces have an informal or formal process for reporting workplace bullying.

The worker should keep records of bullying incidents, including dates, times and witnesses, as well as records of who they spoke to about the bullying (such as a manager or supervisor, health and safety representative or union representative) and when those conversations occurred. They should also detail what actions have or have not been taken to resolve the complaint.

If the complaint cannot be resolved internally, there are two state agencies that may help.

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ)

If a workplace fails to act on a bullying complaint, a complaint can also be lodged with this agency, which is a division of the Office of Industrial Relations. WHSQ has the power to prosecute breaches of the Act and take remedial action. Action is taken by the agency on behalf of the worker, so the worker is not responsible for the costs. Proceedings do not normally result in compensation.

Queensland Industrial Relations Commission (QIRC)

A worker can apply to the QIRC for an order to stop bullying. A worker can also be a former worker, an outworker, an apprentice or a trainee.

The QIRC must begin dealing with an application within 14 days of receiving it. It can make any order it considers appropriate to stop the bullying if it is satisfied the worker has been bullied and that there is a risk the worker will continue to be bullied. In deciding whether to make an order, it must consider:

  • any interim or final outcomes from any investigation into the matter by another body; and
  • any procedure available to the worker to resolve the complaint, and any interim or final outcomes from that procedure.

The QIRC cannot issue penalties or award compensation, but a QIRC order does not prevent a bullied person from seeking and being awarded compensation.

It is important to note that the authority of these agencies does not cover all workers, for example some state or local government workers, and sole traders.

Compensation

If a worker suffers an injury (physical or psychological) as a result of workplace bullying, they may be able to make a claim for workers’ compensation or a civil claim for damages.

Under the Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld), compensation may be paid for an injury that includes the aggravation of a psychological or psychiatric disorder. Such injury arising from bullying can be compensable, but the aggravation must arise out of, or in, the course of employment.

A person claiming compensation for being bullied in the workplace must seek medical attention. A doctor may be able to issue a medical certificate to a worker who is seeking paid leave due to bullying and who is wanting to lodge a claim for workers’ compensation under the Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld).

For when you need help

Workplace bullying can have serious impacts on employees and employers. It is important that both parties know what their liabilities are.

If you are an employee who has been bullied at work, or an employer dealing with a bullying complaint, contact Gibbs Wright Litigation Lawyers today for a free and confidential initial consultation.

Scroll to Top