Is improving how work is organised the solution to bullying and harassment?

Bullying and harassment are the product of organisational context, and so the solution lies in organisational interventions that aim to improve how work is organised, designed and managed.

Angry business woman wearing grey suit with pink blouse hangs over businessman seated at table

Addressing public sector Work Health and Safety (WHS) professionals at Risk Education eXpress' recent webinar on bullying and harassment, Tuckey said, "bullying will flourish when there's an incentive to treat people badly, when there's fertile soil for getting away with it and often if there's an event that might spark off this bullying exchange".

So, what does this mean?

Breaking it down, Tuckey described several enabling factors as the 'fertile soil', including power imbalance and low costs, as well as stress in the system, such as high workloads and pressure.

But that's not where the buck stops fully. According to Tuckey, whilst these may provide a foundation for bullying, what sustains ongoing patterns of bad behaviour is 'motivating factors' in a work environment, such as resource guarding, a way of getting things done circumventing bureaucratic constraints, overworked staff, performance management, and lastly, maintaining power or position.

"These kinds of factors all make it rewarding or reinforcing in some way to bully others," said Tuckey.

The last set of factors in the triumvirate of bullying risk are triggers. According to Tuckey's research, these typically stem from changes to the status quo, like restructuring, a change in organisational strategy, downsizing, and changes within line management.

"If we want to get serious about preventing and reducing bullying in organisations, we need to think about all three sets of factors and try and neutralise them."
Michelle Tuckey, Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology

"We can follow the risk management cycle for psychosocial hazards just like we can for physical health and safety hazards. Where we identify what the hazards are and assess the nature and level of risk, then we identify control measures to put in place then maintain and review those control measures and see how effective they are. And importantly, consultation with workers is vital throughout this whole process," she added.

The process

The process is framed around mitigating organisational risks, optimising work design and practices that foster a healthy work environment.

"We focus on the risk contexts where bullying is likely to occur," Tuckey said. This process revolves around data collection, reaching out to the workforce to find out where the pinch points are occurring and creating a diagnostic profile that highlights the challenges in the organisation.

Perhaps the most important part of the process, according to Tuckey, is the meaningful engagement and participation of staff and leaders.

"It's so important that staff and leaders work together to generate and implement solutions to really cement positive changes in the work environment." 
Michelle Tuckey, Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology

Get in touch

If you’re interested in learning about risk mitigation for bullying and harassment in your workplace, contact our icare Injury Prevention team by emailing: