A 2010 study found that Ireland is seventh on the list of countries with the most workplace bullying in Europe. Four years on, is anything getting better? Shannon Duvall has been hearing some stories that suggest not.
Defined by the Health and Safety Authority of Ireland as “repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work”, bullying has become a major problem in Ireland’s recessionary workplaces.
According to Yvonne Woods of the Free Legal Advice Centre, employment issues are a constant concern:
“It’s the second largest area of enquiry in our centres countrywide last year and on the phone line it’s the fourth largest. So it’s a very important issue. Of these, workplace bullying forms about 5-6% of employment queries.”
What’s going on, Ireland?
It’s an employer’s market, they say; words that go a long way to glossing over the often dire reality that employees are disposable vendibles, occupied in pursuit of their boss’ private ambitions. Hardly news, but it still raises the question of why the need for mistreatment, and why those on the receiving end put up with it?
Meet Sarah. She recounts how the staff in one popular city centre cafe endured the unstable outbursts and belittling scrutiny of the manager, once telling Sarah in front of customers that she was “sick of the look on [her] face”.
After months of denigration, she submitted her resignation by post, suffering panic attacks at the thought of returning in person. She never sought action, thinking it easier to remove herself from the situation instead; a tack often taken by those who feel forced to quit due to harassment.
Or Maedhbh, who was physically assaulted by her restaurant manager with a slap. A formal complaint was filed, but the experience of seeking justice left her deflated, as she is certain the owners to whom she turned did not act in her best interests.
An overheard phone conversation was damning evidence that they planned simply to tell Meadhbh her manager had received a warning when in fact no action had been taken.
“They just wanted to shut me up… she’d been doing this for years, but no one ever complained. Nobody wanted to stick their neck out and risk losing their job.”
Today they still work together, and Meadhbh has not received evidence of any warning having been issued. She says she is always on guard.
Losing your livelihood in today’s market is a terrifying prospect. Many workers in similar situations choose silence in order to keep the rent paid. But what happens when the wages are being earned to support more than just yourself?
Tim is a 22-year-old father of one and a chef by trade. A couple of years ago, Tim walked out after 65 days on the job without a break.
“Two other staff members were away on long holidays, so I was rostered to work a kitchen for a busy hotel, alone, 17 hours a day, with no days off. After two of five weeks I asked my boss to hire a temp from an agency to fill in. The response was they couldn’t afford one, since they were already paying the others holiday wages.”
I asked how he managed so long.
“Maybe I was in survival mode. I could never do it again. Finally, one day I was setting up after having had only four hours off from the previous shift and a delivery came in. I was busy with important prep when the manager came round and demanded I take care of it. When I told him I couldn’t be in two places at once, he said Well, you have to be. I took my apron off, clocked out and never went back. I must have slept for six days. I didn’t eat. I was damaged.”
Tim isn’t the only one. Chris, also a single father, found things got really tough when the company he worked for brought in an ‘annualised hours’ policy. The new system, very beneficial for the employers, put many of the staff in impossible binds.
Under annual hours systems the 40 hour per week requirement is replaced by 2,080 hours-per-year. This means that employees may be required to work extra at short notice, which can disrupt other engagements.
When the extra hours were added, sometimes as many as five on top of a normal workday, they conflicted with the schedule at Chris’ son’s creche. Initially, the conflict was resolved with the manager, and the extra time worked from home. But HR stepped in.
“I was told I had to be on the premises for the entire working day, no exceptions, and I had one week to change my personal circumstances or receive disciplinary action.”
The stress of bureaucracy was enormous. Anxiety and insomnia set in as Chris tried to make adjustments. His doctor issued a sick note, with orders to take two weeks off. Upon return to work, Chris’ sick pay was refused. The imbalance forced him to resign.
There are those who would argue that if you can’t stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen. You’re lucky to even have a job! After all, times are tough, and we all have to put up with things we find wrong.
Jobsearch.about.com has an online article on keeping your job in the recession. It advises the humble peon to keep his mouth shut when confronted with a bad situation at work. Don’t complain, it decrees. Nobody likes complainers, regardless of how legitimate the complaints are. No matter how legitimate the complaints are? Seriously?? It goes on: If you don’t like your job… there are plenty of others who would jump at the chance to get it. Ah. So that’s it.
For many people, the recessionary workplace has become a brutal proving ground. Why risk your livelihood? Better to just suck it up and join the 50% of bullied employees who statistically don’t report incidents, choosing instead to practice conflict avoidance and go home defeated.
Is this good advice? I have a better idea.
It’s no secret that treating staff well brings big benefits for the keen employer. The Harvard Business Review – that bastion of capital – tells us that maintaining a happy workforce creates an environment other peole like to spend time in and is paramount to the longevity and reputation of the venture.
Loyalty and productivity are boosted, staff take fewer sick days, and become more committed to developing their talents. Conversely, when poor workplace practices are normalised, and incivility is tolerated, the repercussions are patent: bullied workers suffer anxiety, fatigue, depression, illness, low morale, and desperation.
While many organizations exist to inform and protect workers, it remains an unfortunate reality that under current Irish law, there are no specific provisions for dealing with bullying itself. For now, it’s up to us to encourage a better paradigm. Because the problem is on the rise.
SIPTU are currently handling 130 such complaints – an all-time high. I spoke with SIPTU rep Tom Driscoll, who suggests we follow the example of Australia’s labour laws, “for €42 victims can seek an injunction from the Australian Fair Work Commission, which (will) legally restrain the perpetrator” from any further bullying.
If we in Ireland start paying attention, we can work toward making similar changes, stamping out the brow-beaters once and for all, and getting Ireland off that list.
Illustration by Phil Barrett