Bullying is a serious issue in workplaces across Australia and a risk factor for anxietydepression and suicide.

Workplace bullying doesn't just hurt those involved. The wider workplace also feels the effects through lost productivity, increased absenteeism, poor morale, and time spent documenting, pursuing or defending claims.

And while we often think about bullying as an individual or interpersonal issue, beyondblue research shows that broader environmental factors – such as poor organisational culture or a lack of leadership – are in fact the main drivers. 

The most effective way to stamp out bullying is to stop it before it starts. This means creating a strong, consistent approach to prevent inappropriate behaviour from escalating, and a positive, respectful work culture where bullying is not tolerated.

We've created a series of step-by-step guides to help you get started.

Workplace bullying

is estimated to

cost the economy

$6–36B

annually


What is workplace bullying?

Let's get technical for a second and consider this definition: Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or group of employees, that creates a risk to health and safety.

The emphasis here is on 'repeated', meaning that a single incident of unreasonable behaviour is not considered bullying. It's still important to deal with what might look like one-off issues, however, as these have the potential to escalate. The 'risk to health and safety' is also important – in this context, we're talking about the effect bullying has on someone's mental health.

Bullying can happen in any type of workplace and to people in any type of role – from front-line employees through to CEOs.

It can also take lots of different forms, from verbal or physical abuse through to online harassment. In some cases workplace bullying extends beyond the working environment – for example, through emails or texts sent outside work hours.


Examples of bullying behaviour include:

  • abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments (including belittling, demeaning or patronising someone, especially in front of others)
  • unjustified or unreasonable criticism or complaints
  • singling someone out and treating them differently from others
  • withholding information, supervision, consultation, training or resources deliberately to prevent someone doing their job
  • setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines
  • spreading misinformation or malicious rumours
  • changing work arrangements, such as rosters and leave, to deliberately inconvenience someone
  • setting tasks that are unreasonably below or above someone's skill level.

  • humiliating, shouting at or threatening someone
  • excluding someone from taking part in activities that relate to their work
  • refusal to acknowledge contributions and achievements (such as finding out that a person's work – and the credit for it – has been stolen or plagiarised)
  • initiation or hazing – where someone is made to do humiliating or inappropriate things
  • teasing or playing practical jokes
  • refusing annual leave, sick leave, and especially compassionate leave without reasonable grounds
  • playing mind games, ganging up or other psychological harassment
  • intimidation (making someone feel less important and undervalued).


Pushing, shoving, tripping and grabbing are considered assault and should be taken seriously. Attacks or threats with equipment, knives, guns, clubs or any object that can be used as a weapon should also be reported.  

If you have been assaulted or fear for your physical safety, you may want to consider contacting the police.

If you've experienced workplace bullying and it's affecting your health and wellbeing, talking to someone about how you're feeling is a good first step. Make an appointment with your doctor or counsellor, or contact the beyondblue Support Service for assistance.

What is not considered workplace bullying 

Some work practices may seem unfair, but are not considered bullying if they're within the law and done in a reasonable manner. 

Examples of what is not considered bullying include:

  • setting realistic and achievable performance goals, standards and deadlines
  • fair and appropriate rostering and allocating working hours 
  • transferring someone to another area of the organisation/business or role for operational reasons
  • deciding not to select a worker for promotion where a reasonable process is followed
  • informing a person about their unsatisfactory work performance in an honest, fair and constructive way
  • informing someone of their unreasonable behaviour in an objective and confidential way
  • implementing organisational changes or restructuring
  • taking disciplinary action, including suspension or terminating employment where appropriate or justified in the circumstances.

It's also important to note that a single incident of unreasonable behaviour is not considered to be workplace bullying. However, any instances of inappropriate or disrespectful behaviour should be dealt with promptly and seriously before they escalate. 

Discrimination and sexual harassment

Discrimination and sexual harassment in employment is unlawful under anti-discrimination, equal employment opportunity, workplace relations and human rights laws, but in isolation is not considered to be bullying.

Examples of sexual harassment include unwelcome touching, sexually explicit comments, or requests that make someone uncomfortable – in person, by email, phone or text message, or online.

For more information or to make a complaint about discrimination or harassment, contact the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The impact of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying can affect people in a number of ways, including:

  • distress, anxiety, panic attacks or sleep disturbance
  • physical illness, such as muscular tension, headaches and digestive problems
  • reduced work performance
  • loss of self-esteem and feelings of isolation
  • deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family and friends
  • depression
  • increased risk of suicide.
  • Risk factors 

    From management styles to the makeup of our workplaces, a number of factors can increase the risk of workplace bullying. 

     

    Work stressors

    High job demands, limited job control, organisational change, role conflict, job insecurity, tolerating unreasonable behaviour or a lack of behavioural standards, unreasonable expectations of clients or customers.

    Leadership styles

    A strict and directive leadership approach that does not allow employees to be involved in decision making. Little or no guidance provided to employees, or responsibilities are inappropriately and informally delegated.

    Systems of work

    Lack of resources, lack of training, poorly designed rostering, unreasonable performance measures or time frames.

    Work relationships

    Poor communication, low levels of support or conflict between employees.

    Workforce characteristics

    Some groups of employees are more at risk of being exposed to workplace bullying including: casual employees, young employees, new employees, apprentices/trainees, injured employees and employees on return to work plans, employees in a minority group because of ethnicity, religion, disability, gender or sexual preferences.

    Find out more

    Learn about your rights and how to make a complaint

    Talk to someone and get support 

    If workplace bullying involves violence, abuse or stalking, contact your local police station.