Poor management the top cause of workplace bullying, study reveals

ADELAIDE, Australia — If the boss doesn’t care, why should the employees? Poor management is a surefire path toward fiscal failure, but new research also finds a bad manager can lead to a nastier work environment for everyone.

Researchers at the University of South Australia cite poor management as the biggest risk factor for workplace bullying. In collaboration with scientists from the Centre for Workplace Excellence, the University of Queensland, and Auburn University, study authors developed a new evidence-based screening tool that identified the nine major risk areas associated with workplace bullying.

These risk areas are very much embedded in typical day-to-day business practices, leading study authors to conclude the burden falls on organizations and employers to address the issues.

The research team analyzed 342 legitimate, real-life bullying complaints filed in South Australia. Notably, 60 percent of those complaints came from female employees. Meanwhile, the largest portion of complaints originated within health and community services, the property and business sector, or the retail sector. That analysis revealed the most prominent risk areas associated with workplace bullying across organizations, researchers explain.

Workplace bullying predominantly shows up in how people are managed,” lead study author Professor Michelle Tuckey says in a university release. “Managing work performance, coordinating working hours and entitlements, and shaping workplace relationships are key areas that organizations need to focus on.”

“It can be tempting to see bullying as a behavioral problem between individuals, but the evidence suggests that bullying actually reflects structural risks in the organizations themselves.”

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After identifying these organizational risks, the research team constructed a screening tool for detecting the early warning signs of workplace bullying. They’ve already validated it in a hospital setting.

“The tool predicts both individual-level and team-level workplace bullying risks that jeopardize the psychological health of employees,” Prof. Tuckey explains.

Study authors add that most current strategies for addressing and preventing workplace bullying, such as anti-bullying policies, bullying awareness training, or incident reporting and investigating complaints, all commit the critical error of overlooking existing workplace structures — instead solely focusing on behaviors between individuals.

As some can imagine, dealing with workplace bullying can seriously impact an employee’s quality of work. Besides just the business repercussions of poor work performance, studies have connected a stressful or toxic work environment to mental health issues, symptoms of PTSD, emotional exhaustion, sleep problems, and even an increased risk of suicide. Bullied workers are also more likely to report poor job satisfaction and more likely to quit or seek a new position elsewhere.

“To prevent bullying, organizations must proactively assess and mitigate the underlying risk factors, like other systematic risk management processes. Only then will an organization thrive,” Prof. Tuckey concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

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