Workplace bullying: The disturbing scale of a problem that's costing New Zealand as much as $1 billion

Warning: This article discusses suicide.

Workplace bullying is today what domestic violence was 30 years ago, the country's foremost bullying prevention advocate has claimed: it's misunderstood, it's unknown and it's underestimated.

New Zealand has the second-highest rate of workplace bullying in the developed world, according to research, but Culture Safe founder Allan Halse says no-one's talking about it and the Government is doing nothing to address it.

Employees are scared to speak out about their experiences, Halse says - and when they do they often face retaliation, deportation or even more extreme bullying.

Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway admitted it's a major problem, and has even ordered an investigation into its prevalence in New Zealand - but that was over a year ago, and there's been no update since.

But Government inaction is just one of a myriad of issues with how workplace bullying is handled, Halse says, along with unclear definitions, weak legislation, and a lack of access to ACC all playing into what he describes as "one of New Zealand's last taboos".

The scale of the problem: What the research says

A 1700-person academic survey undertaken in 2009 found almost one in five Kiwis had experienced bullying in the workplace, making New Zealand the second-worst performing country in the world.

Back then, lead researcher and Massey University Professor Tim Bentley estimated the cost to New Zealand of workplace bullying could be as high as $1 billion, due to decreased productivity, absenteeism, staff turnover, staff dissatisfaction and the cost of investigations.

"Who knows how much this is actually costing organisations?" he told Stuff. "It must be a terrific amount... Minimum it's a multi-million-dollar problem, it could easily be a billion-dollar problem in New Zealand. That's not taking into account all the indirect costs."

WorkSafe, New Zealand's regulator of workplace health and safety, says the issue could be even worse - it estimates as many as one in three Kiwis report workplace bullying every year.

Meanwhile a 2019 study by Stats NZ found 300,000 employees - more than 11 percent of all Kiwi workers - had experienced discrimination, harassment, or bullying in the past 12 months.

The data noted women were more likely than men to experience bullying at work, while Asian and Māori ethnic groups were also bullied at a higher rate than Pākehā or Pasifika people.

Women who worked in male-dominated industries, such as machinery operation, driving and the trades, experienced more than twice the discrimination and harassment of their male counterparts, the study said.

But regardless of occupation, women had it significantly worse.

"[Bullying] was pretty broad for women in pretty much all occupations and different groups, where it was higher," statistician Andrew Neal told Newshub.

Kiwi women experience higher rates of workplace bullying than men.
Kiwi women experience higher rates of workplace bullying than men. Photo credit: Stats NZ

Both men and women working shift work hours also experienced higher discrimination or bullying than those who worked standard hours, the study showed.

"The data we have doesn't delve into why that is, but I guess people would be able suggest it's the type of work involved - whether that's women on the street at night or in hospitals, where you have people coming in under more stressful circumstances," he explained.

Neal said while there was "nothing super surprising" in the data, the results were still upsetting.

"Some of those main trends that people might expect were saddening - the difference between women and men, the different ethnic groups seeing higher rates around the workplace," he told Newshub.

"But it's that overall headline figure of one in 10 people having experienced some form of discrimination, harassment or bullying - that was saddening to see."

'We are so far behind the times': Lack of research slowing down change

Despite these studies, Halse says there's actually a major dearth of good-quality, recent research on the prevalence and intensity of workplace bullying.

"I have tried for years to get the Government to change certain things - one of those things I wanted was research," he told Newshub.

"There is no research in the link between bullying, mental health harm and suicide... We are just so far behind the times with research.

"I believe to understand the problem, we've got to quantify it. Knowing we're the second-worst in the world, that needs to be addressed. We should be running regular qualitative surveys to find out where we're at."

Stats NZ's Andrew Neal agreed there was a lack of research into the issue.

"It's a pity we don't really have any standard time series [analyses], or updated or recent data," he said.

CultureSafe director Allan Halse says workplace bullying is one of New Zealand's last taboos.
CultureSafe director Allan Halse says workplace bullying is one of New Zealand's last taboos. Photo credit: Getty

In May last year, Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway ordered a probe into workplace bullying and told the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to provide advice on how the Government can combat the issue.

He promised the results of the probe would be made available in 2020 but, as of yet, there's been no update.

Lees-Galloway told Newshub the Government has been focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, but says work is continuing on how to prevent bullying in the workplace "as time allows".

"Right now, every employer must provide a safe workplace and that means it needs to be free from bullying and harassment. However we are doing this work because it still continues and we need to do more to prevent it," he said.

"MBIE has already met and received feedback from a wide range of groups including academics, business, worker representatives, legal, and health and safety experts.

"There is work going on in Employment Services to identify the causes of employment relationship breakdown; and to develop an early resolution programme; and WorkSafe continues to provide guidance and harm prevention advice."

Lees-Galloway says he also meets regularly with Business NZ and the NZ Council of Trade Unions to discuss their concerns. He says the issue of bullying and harassment at work remains "a priority topic".

He expects to be able to say more about the work that has taken place shortly.

But Halse doesn't hold out much hope.

"They've done nothing, they will do nothing," he said.

"Workplace bullying is probably one of the last taboos in New Zealand. We only addressed domestic violence 30 years ago… back then, domestic violence was unknown in the same way workplace bullying is now.

"We don't understand it's a problem... those people in positions of power do not understand the impact."

'It's not a simple thing to prove': Why bullying is tough to prosecute

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) 2015, businesses are expected to "manage health and safety risks arising from their work as far as is reasonably practicable".

The problem is, it's extremely rare for them to face any serious consequences.

Halse says even though the HSWA was amended to include mental health in 2015, WorkSafe has still yet to prosecute anyone for psychological harm under the legislation.

"We don't deal with it. We allow bullying to continue, and there's no mechanism to stop it," he explained.

"Worksafe has never, ever prosecuted an employer for causing mental health harm in New Zealand. They have not prosecuted one case - even though we've taken cases to them where there's been evidence of bullying and the person's ended up killing themselves."

The lack of prosecution, Halse says, comes down to how difficult it is to prove harm caused by bullying, and the fear of retaliation from your employer or manager.

"Seventy percent of bullying is manager-down... and in that environment you can't defend yourself, because you can't respond to your manager," Halse explained.

"When we raise concerns with the employer, whoever they are, they engage lawyers and argue that they don't have any bullying - so it becomes a very adversarial process."

In one case, a large organisation Newshub has decided not to name spent $270,000 protecting itself from allegations of bullying by an employee. Halse says they could've just addressed the issue, and saved themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.

And there are other issues, too - no access to ACC for psychological harm, and no counselling provided for victims of workplace bullying.

"If you had a scorecard of 1 to 10 of what we're doing that's right, we'd be struggling to get 2 out of 10."

In announcing the probe into workplace bullying last year, Lees-Galloway admitted it's likely that incidents are underreported.

"People don't know where to get help, or don't get the right help when they reach out. They don't know their rights, what to do about it when those rights are violated, or who to talk to when they need help."

There are efforts to make it better, however - particularly from the public sector, which reportedly has markedly higher rates of bullying than the private sector.

Last year, State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes released a set of Positive and Safe Workplaces Standards in an effort to eliminate toxic behaviour prevalent in government agencies.

And earlier this year, an independent review of New Zealand Police's systems and processes for the prevention and management of bullying found its internal culture didn't match the "prevention-focused, victim-centred mindset" it has adopted in law enforcement. 

Police accepted 30 recommendations for dealing with workplace bullying and harassment complaints.

But Halse says so much still needs to change to address the issue.

Until it does, workplace bullying will remain one of New Zealand's last taboos.

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