In recent years, leaders and managers in schools, tertiary institutions and human service organisations have prioritised wellbeing in the workplace. This commitment is illustrated for example by Auckland University’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon personally chairing the University Health, Safety and Wellbeing Committee. In the university’s faculties the Deans function in the same role.

Mike Webster

The idea behind the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) 2015, which came into force in April 2016, was a prime factor in this escalated focus. WorkSafe New Zealand notes that the HSWA “shifts the focus from monitoring and recording health and safety incidents to proactively identifying and managing risks so everyone is safe and healthy,” thus moving from a management to a leadership approach to wellbeing in the workplace.  A critical factor in workplace wellbeing is the incidence of bullying.

For those affected, workplace bullying – in the words of one research participant who experienced it – “is horrible.” Canterbury University’s Professor Kate van Heugten, who has written extensively on the issue, notes that victims of bullying become “particularly mistrustful of managers.” One of Professor van Heugten’s research participants stated: “Probably I’m somewhat more cynical than I used to be about management and about agencies who say that they will treat their staff in the same way that they treat their clients.”

How do we define bullying, and what are its effects? In a 2010 paper Professor van Heugten defines work-related bullying behaviours as personal attacks; verbal threats; interference with tasks and roles; social isolation and finally physical violence. The emotional impact of intimidation includes fragility and symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. In a 2001 article Stewart Collins reports that those targeted by bullying may experience a loss of confidence in their decision-making ability and capacity to carry out routine tasks that they used to manage adequately. In other words, unresolved workplace intimidation is simultaneously detrimental to people and the organisations where they work.

What do we need to do in the light of these reports?

The beginning point must be leadership integrity. When integrity is absent because unethical behaviour is left unaddressed, organisational dysfunctionality may result in a sense of outrage as professional ethics are in effect set aside.

Sadly, Aotearoa New Zealand has a high rate of bullying both in our schools and the workplace. These are the issues we will address in the upcoming “Beyond Bullying: New Zealand Bullying Prevention Conference” in May. It is the first conference of its kind to be held in New Zealand.

The primary initiative for the inaugural conference came from Bigson Gumbeze, Founding Trustee of the No Bullying Initiative Trust (NBIT) and Warwick Pudney, Violence and Trauma Studies Postgraduate Programme Leader at Auckland University of Technology, and Conference Director.

The conference will be delivered through symposium sessions that highlight the voices of targets and witnesses of bullying, workshops and keynote speakers, including Dr Paul Wood, author of What’s your Prison?

It will focus on an interdisciplinary, multi-professional and broad-based integrated approach. The uniting concern is bullying, and our shared interest is to address bullying concerns with one voice and a unified response.

We invite organisation leaders, educators, researchers and students who are interested in workplace wellbeing to be part of this unique initiative.

Dr Mike Webster a senior lecturer in the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work at the University of Auckland.

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