Workplace bullying in the early childhood sector

by Christa Ludlow

March 05, 2021

Workplace bullying is unfortunately something that many of us will be exposed to in our working careers at some point in time, regardless of sector or industry. According to Safe Work Australia.

 

  • One in three women who claim for a mental health disorder acquired in the workplace stated it involved harassment or bullying
  • One in five men who claim for a mental health disorder acquired in the workplace stated it involved harassment or bullying
  • 37 per cent of workers report being sworn or yelled at in the workplace.

 

Despite the early childhood sector being a profession based on foundations of caring and nurturing, the sector is not immune to instances of bullying, which can happen to people at any level, from front line teachers and educators, right through to management. 

 

Workplace bullying can have devastating effects that can leave individuals suffering physical and emotional trauma, and employers with a workplace drowning in poor organisational culture and disruption. 

 

What is workplace bullying?

 

A commonly accepted definition of bullying is “repeated unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety”.

 

The key elements are:

 

  • The behaviour is unreasonable
  • It is repeated
  • It is directed towards a worker or workers
  • It creates a risk to health and safety

 

A single incident of unreasonable behaviour is not workplace bullying, however it may be repeated or escalate and so should not be ignored.

 

Workplace bullying can be carried out in many ways, including through physical or verbal threats and abuse, emails, text messages, and via social media. It can be obvious (such as shouting) or not (such as setting unreachable targets or excluding the victim from activities).

 

It is important to understand the definition of workplace bullying, as this differs greatly from relational conflict, which is simply a falling out between individuals in the workplace.

 

Bullying is more than just a disagreement or a conflict over a task. Some complaints of bullying are made where workers are disciplined or their performance is reviewed negatively. If done reasonably, this is not bullying. It is a reasonable management action

 

Workplace bullying in the early childhood sector

 

In 2018 research conducted by Roy Morgan highlighted that 40 per cent of those working in early childhood education claimed to have experienced workplace bullying in some form.

 

Some reported examples of bullying behaviour in the early childhood sector include; 

 

  • belittling of staff in front of parents and other staff; 
  • receiving warnings without justification; 
  • lack of communication from management; 
  • harassment, both directly and through the use of social media. 

 

There are also instances where the bullying is attributed to a parent or group of parents.

 

Effects of workplace bullying

 

The effects of workplace bullying can be significant, leading to serious physical and psychological health issues such as depression, stress and anxiety. It is also important to note that workplace bullying in an early childhood setting can also impact on the children who may witness the conduct.  

 

These effects can lead to increased staff absences, a loss of efficiency and productivity in the workplace, and an increase in staff turnover. 

  

Bullying is a workplace hazard, and employers have an obligation under the work health and safety legislation in their State or Territory to manage that risk and ensure the employees’ safety at work, as far as reasonably practicable. Employees also must also take reasonable care for the health and safety of others. Failure to do so may result in criminal penalties. 

 

Additionally an employee who is being bullied can apply to the Fair Work Commission for a stop bullying order. If bullying is established, the Commission can make wide ranging orders to control this. 

 

How to prevent and manage Workplace Bullying

 

Prevention of bullying is the preferred approach. A number of factors have been proven to increase the risk of bullying, including: 

 

  • job insecurity
  • confusion or conflict about roles
  • a stressful work environment 
  • high workloads 
  • acceptance of inappropriate behaviour 
  • workers lacking any control over how they do their work. 

 

Check if these are present in your workplace and if so take action to address this. 

 

Employers must also ensure that they have: 

 

  • a policy, code of conduct and/or values statement making clear what conduct is and is not acceptable, and the consequences and procedure that will be followed if the policy is breached. It should also require staff to report any bullying conduct which they witness towards others. 
  • suitable training, to ensure that staff are aware of what constitutes inappropriate workplace behaviour, and they are aware of what constitutes workplace bullying and how to respond
  • managers with the necessary skills to manage inappropriate workplace behaviour.

 

If bullying is reported, the endorsed approach is to investigate the complaint in a fair and timely manner to determine what has occurred. Investigations should  be confidential and the alleged bully must be told what the allegations are and given an opportunity to respond.

 

If you are not sure how to conduct an investigation, you should engage an experienced workplace investigator. 

 

If bullying is established, disciplinary action should be taken, which would depend on the severity of the conduct. 

 

More information is available in these guides for employers and for workers

 

If you believe you are experiencing workplace bullying, or you witness it happening to others, it is important that you report it so that action can be taken. Failing to report workplace bullying enables the bullying to continue. 

 

Christa Ludlow is a Principal Consultant with Weir Consulting (National) and is a lawyer, qualified coach and mediator. She provides workplace conflict resolution, investigation, coaching and training services to clients in the public and private sectors.

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