Workplace victims deserve better support

Imagine a friend comes to you and says, "I think I’m being abused." Imagine their voice shaking just enough to reveal the control they are exerting to keep themselves in check.

Imagine their eyes glistening and, as you glance down, you notice they are twisting their fingers in knots, not even aware of what they are doing. Imagine they tell you that they are being regularly belittled, sworn at, threatened with physical violence, screamed at, called names … even pushed around. That they are afraid.

What would you do? Most of us could identify a significant number of organisations built purely to support people in this situation, not least of which is the police, to help them escape the pattern of violence.

However, now imagine that this friend tells you that the perpetrator is their boss. Now, what do you do?

Over the years, I have supported many (too many) clients who are in this situation.

They feel trapped in their job because they need the income to pay their rent, their bills, to put food on the table.

Their confidence has been destroyed and it is a large step for them to take to believe the problem is actually their boss and not them – that no matter what, they don’t deserve to be constantly living in fear of the next outburst and regularly being subjected to behaviour that makes them feel less than they are.

However, if this behaviour happens in the workplace, it is not considered violence but rather bullying, despite the example behaviours being almost identical. And the process of seeking help is more difficult.

The journey for victims to find support in this process is a confusing one.

The language difference between domestic violence and workplace bullying makes an apparently subtle, yet psychologically significant impact on the way we feel about each situation, despite similarities of victim experience.

Domestic violence language revolves around perpetrator accountability and believing, protecting and supporting the victim without judgment.

However, workplace bullying language is commonly focused supporting managers to manage the risk of bullying. The journey for victims to find support in this process is a confusing one.

The code of practice for workplace vullying largely emphasises maintaining compliance with health and safety requirements for businesses, characterising workplace bullying as something to resolve through mediation. Extensive information is available for managing the risk of workplace bullying from a management perspective, focusing on internal mediation before looking at external options through the Fair Work Commission.

However, with incidents of bullying on the rise in Australia, and given the impact of workplace bullying on the victim leads to shattered confidence, anxiety, physical illness, depression and thoughts of suicide, I wonder at the efficacy of the controls that are supposed to be in place and support available to help victims find the courage to come forward.

Why is it still so hard to find help and victim advocacy support?

External mediation through the Fair Work Commission is not always possible.

Anti-bullying laws don’t cover people working in sole trader or partnership businesses, some state and local government employees (including the Defence Force) or people employed by corporations whose main activity is not trading or financial. And yet, these workplaces are hardly immune to workplace bullying.

If a worker applies to the Fair Work Commission for help, it is not without risk. The submission costs more than $70, and if the case is considered unlikely to succeed, the commission can order the worker to pay for the costs involved.

Not many people would proceed beyond reading that on the website for fear of making it all worse.

Up to half of us will suffer workplace violence during our career. It costs organisations up to $36 billion a year.

When it is tied up in business compliance, I think we forget that workplace bullying is often criminal: Brodie’s Law in Victoria applies to all forms of physical, psychological, verbal and cyber bullying including workplace occurrences.

Genuinely keeping our nation’s workers safe extends beyond the boss’ responsibility of ticking boxes on self-assessed compliance documentation.

It’s time to shift the dialogue: we need to create social conversations so that victims’ pathways to support are easier to find.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers writer and coach at impressability.com.au