New academic research reveals an astonishing level of cyber bullying in the public service. It is disturbing that 72 per cent of 600 public sector workers who took part in a survey for the research reported suffering or witnessing cyber bullying at work during the previous six months. As well, 74 per cent ranked their workplace as highly stressful.
This finding is an indictment of public service culture and leadership that should not be allowed to go unchallenged. It points to a deeper problem, that cyber bullying now appears to be endemic in some public sector workplaces.
Workplace bullying is not new, and its cost to the Australian economy is put at a staggering $36 million a year. The personal cost is unquantifiable.
Lest anyone believe the issue is not serious, it is sobering to learn that many of the victims who participated in the research felt almost helpless. They reported it was difficult to hold their abusers to account and believed many anti-bullying protocols and procedures dating from the 1990s were hopelessly inadequate to deal with high-tech harassment.
Clearly technology has provided an insidious new vehicle for bullies to ply their evil trade. They are now able to extend their tentacles, no matter what time of day, and even invade the privacy of home life. It has become a global problem.
With cyber bullying, the activity can be anonymous, with the result employees can bully a colleague and remain unaccountable, even if they pursue the victim interstate.
The research shows cyber bullying is no longer done only by teenagers, itself a phenomenon that is reported to be occurring in schools around the world. Here, the onus is on schools, with the support of parents, to provide preventative strategies and manage incidents of cyber bullying properly.
How to address this disturbing and complex issue in the Australian Public Service is problematic. One suggestion is to develop federal anti-cyber bullying legislation covering all Australian workplaces. It is a pickle for legislators because traditional bullying is difficult to resolve or eliminate. The complexities of cyber bullying increase this challenge.
It seems unlikely that laws by themselves can halt or even ameliorate the evil of cyber bullying. The sad reality is that bullying, of one form or another, is widespread in the community. It is a social relationship problem, which points to where the solution must be found, if indeed, the community can risk being sufficiently optimistic to believe a way can be discovered to resolve this deeply ingrained problem.
However, despite the road ahead being unclear, the broader community has at least been given a wake up call by this groundbreaking research project about the prevalence and impact of the current level of online harassment.
The start of the year is an appropriate time to call on the government to take a genuine leadership role on this problem, and to warn it of the ramifications of the failure to act. We believe the nation's valued public servants deserve a better deal and accordingly, call for a national conversation to discuss the most appropriate mix of legislation and education, in the search for the best strategy.