Performance review staged generics.

A review has found bullying happens too often in Australian workplaces. Photo: Andrew Quilty

Tough penalities and a national advisory service have been recommended after an inquiry was told of widespread bullying in Australian workplaces, including some cases that led to workers taking their own lives or becoming permanently disabled.

A House of Representative committee has proposed a uniform national approach to address workplace bullying, including an agreed definition of what constitutes bullying behaviour.

The committee said criminal sanctions should be available and that workers needed the right to launch legal action if they were bullied. The committee also expressed concern about public servants who, after complaining about bullying, were instructed to undergo mental health screening to test their ''fitness for work''.

Labor MP Amanda Rishworth, who chaired the inquiry, said society could not ignore the seriousness of bullying in the workplace.

Ms Rishworth, who worked as psychologist before entering Parliament, said she she had been shocked by some of the evidence by victims of bullying.

''The psychological and physical detriment to health that bullying had and, of course, the cases that led to suicide was the shocking part for me because it really indicated the seriousness of this,'' she said.

The committee recommended that workplace bullying be defined as, ''repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety''.

Ms Rishworth said many people did not properly understand workplace bullying, just as in the past there had been a poor understanding of sexual harassment.

The inquiry recommended that a national service be established to provide advice, assistance and resolution services to employers and workers on preventing and dealing with bullying.

It also recommended that the government consider establishing an independent investigation referral service.

Criminal penalties for bullying in all states and territories should be at least as extensive as those introduced in Victoria in the wake of the 2006 suicide of Victorian waitress Brodie Panlock.

A number of public servants gave evidence that alleged victims had been subjected to ''fitness for duty tests'', which they believed could ''support, reward and enable a culture of workplace bullying''.

''The committee is concerned that there are no mandatory safeguards in the Commonwealth regulations requiring all decisions to refer a worker to a mental health assessment (or, indeed, any health assessment) be signed off by a second and at least somewhat independent party,'' the inquiry report said.

''It is also worrying that there is no requirement that Commonwealth government departments have formal procedures in place setting out how decisions about health assessments must be made.''

In a dissenting report, Coalition MPs expressed concern that the introduction of penalties could make employers reluctant to to seek outside advice ondealing with bullying because of fears they could draw the attention of regulators.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry welcomed many of the report's findings but was concerned that ''regulatory overreach'' could be counter-productive.

It has been estimated that 6.8 per cent to 15 per cent of Australian workers have been bullied.

Workplace bullying is estimated to cost the economy between $6 billion and $36 billion each year.