• Bullying at work

    Bullying at work can have a significant negative impact on your professional and personal lives.


    It may be that you are being ignored, being over worked or not given appropriate work or being spoken to inappropriately on a regular basis. Or you may have been accused of bullying someone you work with.

    Being subject to bullying or being accused of it can make it difficult to concentrate at work and inevitably results in you bringing your anxieties about work home with you. This can lead to sleepless nights and increasing anxiety, and can have a significant impact on patient care.

    A recent study indicated that 25% of the Australian medical workforce had encountered bullying during the last 12 months, which strongly associated with poorer health and wellbeing. (Askew D et al Bullying in the Australian Medical Workforce: cross sectional data from an Australian e-Cohort study Australian Health Review 2012; 36(2) 197-204)

    At Avant over the past 5 years, we have seen an increase in allegations of bullying or intimidation of staff, and allegations about negative work environment. Here we outline what is and is not bullying. We also provide information on what you can do if you have experienced bullying or have been accused of bullying

    What is workplace bullying?

    It is not only aggressive behaviours such as yelling that can be characterised as bullying. Bullying can also include passive and passive aggressive behaviour such as using a condescending tone when speaking to a colleague or publicly criticising a co-worker.

    Behaviour constituting workplace bullying will generally meet the following criteria:

    • It occurs at work
    • It is repeated
    • It is unreasonable
    • It is likely to cause a risk to health and safety.

    At work?

    Conduct is generally regarded as work related conduct if there is a sufficient connection to the workplace. There are a range of factors that a court or tribunal will consider to determine whether there is a sufficient connection to work. For example, whether the conduct occurs at a work sponsored function, whether the employer required the employee to be in the particular location that the conduct occurred and whether the conduct might bring the employer into disrepute.

    Repeated and unreasonable?

    A single incidence of bullying behaviour is not enough. The behaviour must be repeated and it must be unreasonable.

    Risk to health and safety

    The behaviour must create a risk to a person’s health and safety (for example, a risk of psychological injury). It is not necessary for actual harm to occur.

    What is not workplace bullying?

    Reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner is not bullying. Supervisors have a right to manage your performance. Mere negative feedback, or constructive criticism is not bullying and harassment. However, if you are experiencing feedback in an inappropriate tone or manner, or you do not feel you are receiving the necessary support to improve your performance compared to others, this may constitute bullying and harassment.

    Some colleges such as the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) are training supervisors to manage trainees and communicate feedback effectively. This may help in giving negative feedback to trainees in a more constructive manner.

    What to do if you are experiencing bullying

    1. Raising your concerns at an early stage will assist in resolving the issue as quickly and painlessly as possible
    2. Complaints should be handled as informally and locally as appropriate. Try to discuss the matter with the person in question. If this is not appropriate, the next step is to discuss your specific concerns with your manager. If your manager is involved, or there may be a conflict of interest, you should make your complaint to the next more senior manager. You will need to be prepared for the person you are complaining about to be informed of the complaint. Initial assessments of complaints should be conducted quickly.
    3. It may be useful to identify a mentor outside your workplace whom you can approach informally for their perspective and advice on your particular situation.

    You may be able to make a complaint about bullying at work to the Fair Work Commission if you work for particular organisations (for example, companies). Further information about your rights can be found at www.fwc.gov.au, you can also contact Avant’s Medico-Legal Advisory Service for advice on 1800 128 268.

    What to do if you've been accused of bullying?

    You should seek advice early if a concern about your workplace behaviour has been raised with you.

    We have seen many unhappy outcomes when doctors have not sought advice before responding to a complaint or investigative process. Once a decision has been made to suspend a doctor, terminate an employment contract or impose an unfavourable outcome it is far more difficult to correct than actions aimed at preventing an outcome.

    Contact Avant’s Medico-Legal Advisory Service for advice on 1800 128 268.

    Look after yourself

    Being subject to negative workplace behaviours or receiving a complaint that you have exhibited disruptive behaviours can have a significant impact on your personal and professional lives. It’s important that you do not go through this alone, and that you seek advice and support early. See “Supports available” section of our Health and Wellbeing site.

    Cautionary Tale

    Case study


    Dr Smith

    Dr Smith received a letter from his manager seeking a response to a number of allegations made by his co-worker about his conduct towards the co-worker. The complaints included:

    • Dr Smith failed to invite the co-worker to meetings
    • Dr Smith failed to include the co-worker in important emails sent to a group of colleagues
    • Dr Smith used the co-worker’s office during her recent leave and left it in an untidy state on purpose
    • Dr Smith never responds to emails sent by the co-worker
    • Dr Smith talks to other colleagues about the co-worker and disparages her to the colleagues
    • Dr Smith is very curt in his dealing with the co-worker and ignores her as much as possible

    We were able to assist Dr Smith to respond to the allegations to minimise the risk of disciplinary action being taken against him.