Developing management competency around dealing with bullying is a key to improving the health and safety of workplaces, says Massey University’s Dr Natalia D’Souza.

Recent research by Dr D’Souza, Dr Kate Blackwood and Jishuo Sun from the University’s School of Management – Te Kahui Kahurangi suggests that gaps in management competencies among managers of Kiwi workplaces may be one reason why the prevalence of workplace bullying In New Zealand remains too high.

It is estimated that bullying in New Zealand workplaces affects between 15% to 18% of workers which is high compared to other countries – for example, prevalence rates of around 3% in Scandinavia.

The study, ‘Understanding Management Competencies for Managing Bullying and Fostering Healthy Work in Nursing’, published by Massey’s Healthy Work Group in association with the College of Nurses Aotearoa, found that gaps in competencies among managers about how to prevent, and deal with, bullying was a key shortcoming. Another key factor in prevalence rates appears to be organisational culture and leadership.

The research focused on nursing but Dr D’Souza believes many of the observations may apply to other sectors, something future research will seek to understand.

Dr Natalia D'Souza.

Helping managers upskill to close this competency gap could go a long way towards addressing New Zealand’s high levels of workplace bullying, she says.

Four key areas of competency identified in the research are: taking complaints seriously, being visible so that workers are comfortable reporting instances of bullying, ensuring a clear understanding of rules to prevent bullying and setting clear boundaries, and being willing to pass on complaints or seek advice if unsure how to deal with them.

“If bullying complaints are poorly handled, complainants go through secondary victimisation,” says Dr D’Souza. “Managers don’t need all the answers, but they need to be able to quickly escalate matters to senior colleagues or Human Resources specialists, or call in expertise and other resources.”

Dr D’Souza says one of the reasons for this competency gap among many managers is that the skills and experience required to gain managerial roles are often different to those needed to deal with bullying.

“Managers are often appointed because of a technical skill or ability relating to the function of the organisation or business unit, but may lack interpersonal managerial skills to deal with issues like bullying,” she says. “These ‘people skills’ are not often to the forefront of training among many professions.”

She says another critical factor in the prevalence of bullying in a workplace is organisational culture and leadership.

“An organisational culture with no tolerance of any bullying at all and a safe culture where, if there is any abusive or other behaviour, it can be openly reported is a key factor in lowering prevalence rates,” she says.

The study defines workplace bullying as ‘repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can lead to physical or psychosocial harm’.

The research is published ahead of Bullying-Free NZ week (May 13 – 17, 2019), an initiative led by the Mental Health Foundation

Dr D’Souza says that any initiative like Bullying-free NZ week is welcome because of the awareness it raises about the issue not only for organisations, but for individuals who may be victims of bullying to know there are options in terms of help and support.

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