Many of my friends who were once journos fled the newsroom for the greener pastures (or at least the deeper pockets) of the public service. Few regretted it. Some whinge about process-focused dogmatists and the plodding pace of government, but they also speak in awe of the efforts spent ensuring that staff ''feel good''.

One ex-journalist told me recently his government workplace was ''phenomenal''. ''Managers go to the enth degree to check whether staff are happy with what they're doing. But, the thing is, even though we have a lot of meetings to make sure we're all supporting each other, there are heaps of disputes about bullying. I just sit there thinking about life in a newsroom, and wonder what on earth they're talking about.''

I'll admit I've lost perspective on what a ''normal'' workplace is like. I've spent the last decade in politics and the media; industries not renowned for a softly, softly approach to personnel management. Arguments are an accepted part of reaching a conclusion; abuse from the public is unavoidable. Yet I realise this would create a legal mess in other workplaces. And perhaps that's fair enough: why should most workers need a thick hide to do their jobs?

Yet the Australian Public Service appears to be experiencing an epidemic of harassment. The government's workplace health regulator, Comcare, told Parliament last month the number of mental harm claims it received from public servants had risen 30 per cent in three years. Over the same period, the annual cost of bullying-related claims in the APS jumped from $27.4 million to $46.3 million.

Nonetheless, outsiders regularly guffaw at the notion of bullied public servants. The bureaucracy's image isn't helped by the occasional high-profile compensation claim (such as the official injured while having sex on a work trip, or this week's report on two Tax Office colleagues who stoushed over a cup of coffee). These cases are more complex than a prima facie account suggests, but they feed the public perception that APS staff need to harden up.

In truth, there's no epidemic: each year, only a tiny fraction of public servants (0.13 per cent in 2010-11) are investigated for harassing colleagues. Comcare also notes that, last financial year, it received just 1.6 compo claims relating to mental stress for every 1000 full-time staff. Yet this doesn't mean the problem isn't serious at the micro level: I've spoken with enough victims to realise how much trauma a malicious colleague can cause. (One new website, apsbullying.com, now collects and publishes these war stories.)

The reasons people bully others, or feel that they are bullied, are as complex as people themselves. I doubt there are any universally effective ways to stop workplace harassment. However, after reading recent case law, what's clear is that many (but not all) APS compo claims could have been avoided if managers tackled perceived underperformance earlier.

This is counterintuitive for many public servants, because of the stubborn myth that initiating a performance management process creates legal risks. Increasingly, the reverse is true, as shown by two decisions this year: Commonwealth Bank v Reeve in the Federal Court, and Fox v Comcare in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Both highlight the need for employers not only to prevent bullying, but to act to prevent employees from feeling harassed, even if there is no proven bullying or harassment taking place. Ignoring a staff ''problem'', in the hope it will fade, is probably the worst decision a manager can make, yet it still happens regularly.

A performance management process often helps the troubled public servant, too, because it coaxes them to voice concerns - about workloads or office relationships - they may otherwise have suffered silently. It's no cure-all: these processes don't always work perfectly, nor are they always fair. But they can clarify misunderstandings, identify looming mental-health problems, and save a hell of a lot of public money.

Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant. Send your confidential tips to aps6@canberratimes.com.au