One in five Australian government employees, in a Queensland University of Technology study of over 600, are experiencing or observing workplace cyberbullying.
As opposed to the traditional workplace bullying definition, which involves persistent face-to-face harassment between a bully and their target(s), workplace cyberbullying is defined by the ability of abusive content to go viral on the internet or work intranet. It is defined as more intense because the content can be rapidly disseminated, hard to remove, follows people from work to home and can sometimes be anonymous.
Public servants in the study reported cyberbullying through work related phone calls and email, text messaging and instant message services.
Over half of the cyberbullying was in the form of micromanagement, inconsistent workloads and persistent criticism of a person and their work. Slander, social isolation and insinuations about a person’s mental health occurred over in 18.8% of cases.
Public servants reported being increasingly stressed about perpetrators’ ability to use technology to mass broadcast defamatory comments or images quickly and publicly, without the target being able to easily defend themselves.
The findings are concerning as public servants comprise nearly 2 million employees out of Australia’s total workforce of nearly 12 million workers.
The research shows that employers are struggling to meet their duty of care obligations within the Work Health Safety Act 2011 to detect and manage pyscho-social hazards, such as face-to-face bullying and cyberbullying.
The study also suggests that a specific federal anti-cyberbullying intervention and prevention law, followed by specific workplace strategies, need to be developed for public sector employees and the wider Australian labour force.
At the moment government employees are offered anti-bullying advisory services from the Fair Work Commission. This enables the Commission to mediate on workers behalf to stop workplace bullying, or to raise an order to stop the behaviour.
This service is in addition to existing laws which mandate the development and enforcement of anti-bullying policies, training and education programs in each government agency.
Despite these measures, public servants in the QUT research had lowered expectations that their organisation’s anti-workplace bullying policies and procedures would quickly prevent or intervene on their behalf in workplace cyberbullying cases.
The costs of traditional face-to-face workplace bullying have been tallied before with the Australian Productivity Commission’s finding in 2010, which estimated the annual costs to Australian businesses of between $6 and $36 billion.
As indicated by the Productivity Commission’s report, there are direct costs from the time consumed in addressing and investigating allegations of bullying through formal grievance procedures. Other economic costs include treatments for victims, legal costs, income support and other government benefits.
In 2012, research found organisations were paying up to $24,000 for psychological injury claims.
Nearly half of participants (43.8%) in the cyberbullying study ranked their work performance and productivity as very negative to negative when they were being cyberbullied.
The QUT research was comprised of three studies: 24 confidential face-to-face interviews, a nation-wide anonymous online survey with 127 participants and a statistical online survey of 463 government employees. It is worth noting that research participants were volunteers, so the results could be potentially skewed towards participants who had either viewed or experienced workplace cyberbullying.
This article first appeared on ‘The Conversation’ on 25 January 2016.