Bullying and Trust: Why victims find it hard to return to work

Australian workers have an expectation that their employer will provide a safe place to work. In fact, employers are legally obliged to make the workplace safe. When employers fail to meet the employee’s expectations, the impact on bullied workers can be profound. Sadly, we see workers take the ultimate step of taking their lives, when they feel they have no other alternatives.


When an employee feels that their environment cannot guarantee their safety, they often lose trust with their organisation and their employer. I regularly work with people who have taken leave as a result of work-place bullying. They make a formal complaint, they come for support, we work through the reaction to bullying, and then it comes time for them to return to work. The people who struggle the most are those who feel that, not only were they bullied, but that the organisation didn’t respond adequately  to resolve the problem or acknowledge their concerns. They have no faith that they will be able to return to work without the same people behaving the same way. Further, they feel extremely anxious about the specific workplace, sometimes experiencing extreme psychological reactions at the thought of seeing former colleagues.


More resourceful individuals will do one of two things; they will take legal action against their employer, or they will simply leave. Either scenario is obviously costly to the employer, however, both scenarios can be risky for the employee. The cost of the legal battle might outweigh the value of the outcome. Changing employers also does not guarantee the same thing won’t happen again.


The issues surrounding trust can be managed if employers take the appropriate action. First, before a problem arises, employers need clear policies regarding how they will handle bullying complaints. It is simply not adequate to have a policy that only sets out what bullying is. Stakeholders need to have the appropriate mechanisms in place to address complaints when they arise. Second, timeliness is critical. Many of my clients wait weeks, or sometimes months, before their employer takes any action at all. Victims of work-place bullying can be left wondering what their employer is thinking, or thinking their employer doesn’t care about them when there has been little to no communication for long periods of time. While they wait, they become more anxious, depressed, and angry. As a result, their trust in their employer is damaged even further. Third, independent investigation of the matter is essential. Too often matters are investigated by friends of the alleged bully or others who could be seen as having a conflict of interests, leaving the victim feeling there is no chance of a fair outcome. Fourth, a mediated outcome can make a significant difference to rebuilding trust. And finally, a planned return-to-work review of the return-to-work progress helps the employee feel that that their concerns are being taken seriously.


These observations are based on my accumulated experience as a clinical psychologist over the last 25 years. In that time I’ve seen many examples of good and bad management of worker’s injuries, and examples of workers malingering. In the genuine cases, putting the right plans in place and executing them well will help the worker get back to work faster and, I believe, have a positive effect on the wider culture of the organisation.


Simon Kinsella

Director and Clinical Psychologist

February 2018

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