Action Needed on Bullying in Victorian Public Health Sector

- Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Bullying Entrenched in Victorian Public Health Sector

The larger the organisation, the greater the potential for bullying and harassment to become ingrained in workplace culture. When this happens, the victim can become the perpetrator, and the cycle continues. The situation may be made worse by management acquiescence, especially if the attitude is “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

The Victorian Auditor-General released its report into Bullying and Harassment in the Health Sector recently. It made many findings about how widespread the problem is, and also some strong recommendations for change. 

Background to the report

The Victorian Government commissioned a series of audits that looked at the occupational health and safety of Victorian public sector health workers. One audit considered whether the risk of workplace bullying and harassment was being effectively managed. 

This was the subject of the report. The report noted that serious harm can be caused by bullying and harassment. In 2010, it was estimated to have cost the Australian economy up to $36 billion per annum.  

The report also noted that the problem hits the public health sector particularly hard with:

  • Staff retention issues. 
  • Cost of recruitment and training. 
  • Low morale.
  • Management time spent dealing with the issue. 
  • Legal costs.
  • Damage to reputation. 

A disappointing reflection on leadership
The Auditor-General did not mince words, saying: 

“The leadership of health sector agencies do not give sufficient priority and commitment to reducing bullying and harassment within their organisations.”

The report also found that there were no proper processes in place for early intervention of bullying and harassment issues. More guidance and support was required to improve the public health sector’s management of inappropriate behaviour.

The more specific findings included that:

  • Management did not take bullying and harassment seriously as an OHS issue.
  • Steps were not being taken to identify and minimise risks.
  • There was a consistent failure to hold senior staff accountable.
  • Incidents were under-reported, possibly because of fear of repercussions, the mistrust of human resources staff, or the normalisation of the behaviour. 
  • Policies and procedures were ineffective at regulating inappropriate behaviour because of lack of understanding, ineffective implementation and failure to comply. 
  • Training and education were ineffective because of being voluntary, inconsistent or insufficient. 
  • Early intervention was generally inadequate and staff mistrusted the process.
  • There was no systematic or effective response to formal complaints.
  • There was ineffective guidance and assistance to help the sector implement best practice measures. 

The report noted that in 2013, more than one quarter of Victoria’s public health employees had experienced bullying or harassment. 

The report’s recommendations

With such troubling findings, it is no surprise that the report has made a long list of recommendations. They include:

  • Implementing risk management procedures to identify and minimise inappropriate behaviours.
  • Implementing policies and procedures that are clear and set out accountability for dealing with complaints. Ensuring compliance with policies and procedures.
  • Fostering a positive workplace. 
  • Encouraging reporting of behaviour by taking action on complaints. 
  • Developing and implementing mandatory training on bullying and harassment issues. 
  • Proper documentation of any issues concerning inappropriate behaviours. 
  • Striving for early intervention to minimise damage.
  • Implementing a formal complaints procedure. 
  • Making human resource departments more effective in dealing with the issues. 

The Victorian health sector certainly has a huge job ahead of it. With so many employees having first-hand experience, there is little doubt that there is an entrenched culture of inappropriate behaviour in many of the public health agencies. 

However, the report and its ensuing publicity is perhaps a positive first step in fixing the issues and there is potential to implement sweeping change. We will monitor the progress of the reforms with great interest. 

In the meantime, we know that effective policies and workplace culture play a huge role in the prevention of bullying and harassment. If any of these issues are ringing alarm bells for you and your organisation, WISE Workplace can help. We have vast experience in dealing with bullying and harassment issues and we are just a phone call away. 

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