Workplace cyberbullying rife in Australia’s public service: study

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Cyberbullying in the Australian public sector is causing stress, reducing job satisfaction and harming productivity, says a new study by Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

The 2015 study – which involved interviews with 600 public servants across local, state and federal government – found that 72 per cent had experienced or witnessed cyberbullying over the last six months, with 74 per cent ranking their workplace as highly stressful.

Dr Felicity Lawrence from QUT’s Faculty of Education said the public servants interviewed identified the existence of a “cyber-underground” where a negative online culture had sprung up which allowed some employees get away with freely harassing and bullying others.

“Workplace cyberbullying is overt or anonymous person or task-related bullying where other workers or external clients use technology to instantaneously and publically broadcast a comment, video or picture, anywhere and anytime, to embarrass or defame the target,” Dr Lawrence said.

“Even one defamatory video, post or comment has the capacity to go viral, and once it’s on the internet it is hard to remove and can damage an employee’s reputation, and potentially their career.”

Nearly half of participants reported a negative impact on their work performance and productivity and one-third said it had made them dissatisfied with their job.

Dr Lawrence said public servants were often targets for aggressive and bullying emails, YouTube videos or social media posts because they made decisions that sometimes adversely impacted on staff or clients.

“Government employees view this online behaviour as more intense than face-to-face bullying as cyberbullying crosses work and home boundaries and can follow them from job to job, state to state, and is difficult to stop or remove from the internet,” said Dr Lawrence.

It is not only the incidence of cyberbullying amongst the public servants interviewed that is shocking but the government’s apparent response to it. More than half of those interviewed said their organisation’s anti-bullying strategies were ineffective.

Dr Lawrence said traditional workplace bullying was estimated to cost the national economy up to $36 billion each year and that the cost of cyberbullying could be extremely serious. She called on the federal government to formulate anti-cyberbullying legislation.

Dr Lawrence said that her research had “significant implications” for employers under their duty of care obligations within the Work Health Safety Act 2011.

“One practical solution to mitigate workplace cyberbullying would be to develop federal anti-cyberbullying legislation covering all Australian workplaces,” she said. “Organisations should also be establishing clear policies supported by management along with effective training and education programs to address the issue.”

Her study is believed to be the first one into Australian public servants’ experiences of cyberbullying and the impact it can have on those being bullied.

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