A recent study on stress and bullying in New Zealand workplaces has suggested that nearly one in five workers have suffered from some form of workplace bullying.

The multi-university study funded by the Department of Labour and the Health Research Council of New Zealand involved 1728 workers across the health, education, hospitality and travel sectors. According to the final Report (which was released in December 2009), entitled "Understanding Stress and Bullying in New Zealand Workplaces", 18 percent of workers reported that they had been victims of bullying at work and 75 percent claimed they had suffered from workplace stress.

The concept of bullying has not been defined in any statute and there is no single, universally accepted definition of workplace bullying. The Report states that bullying "involves a range of negative behaviours directed at a target. These behaviours are often covert and nonverbal, and can be task-related or personal attacks. Importantly, it is the persistent nature of the negative behaviours that gives bullying its destructive force."

The first employment law case in New Zealand to attempt to define the concept of bullying was Evans v Gen-i Ltd. In this case in August 2005 the Employment Relations Authority attempted to define bullying as follows:

"Bullying may be seen as something that someone repeatedly does or says to gain power and dominance over another, including any action or implied action, such as threats, intended to cause fear and distress. The behaviour has to be repeated on more than one occasion and there must be evidence that those involved intended or felt fear."

The lead researcher for the multi-university study has stated that the cost of bullying in New Zealand could be a billion-dollar problem. In Australia the cost of bullying has been estimated at almost NZ$5.23 billion per year. For example, in a very recent Australian case, Bailey v Peakhurst Bowling & Recreation Club Ltd, an employee who made a claim for workplace negligence against her employer following a course of bullying and harassment by her supervisor at work has been awarded $507,550 in damages.

The NSW District Court accepted that the employee had been subjected to bullying and harassment by the supervisor. For example, being told that her job was precarious and that the Club would "get rid of her", the use of extremely vulgar language, the alteration of her shifts without consultation or discussion, wrongfully implying that she had stolen money from the till (when the supervisor knew this was not correct) and being underpaid. In addition, when this issue was raised with the Club, the employee was informed that the supervisor in question had resigned. This was not in fact the case.

The Court ultimately accepted that the employee had sustained such serious psychiatric injuries that she was unlikely to ever recover and be able to return to work again. She was awarded a total of $507,550 in damages (for past and future earnings).

While the New Zealand Court have not yet heard a bullying claim of this scale, there are additional obligations that apply to employers here. All employers have a duty under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 to take all practicable steps to ensure that workplaces are free from hazards, employees are not harmed while at work, and this extends to having a workplace in which bullying is not tolerated.

Employers should also be aware of the substantial negative effects of workplace bullying on the business. According to the Report, employees who are subjected to bullying take more days off, have reduced job satisfaction, organisational commitment and work motivation, and have an increased likelihood of leaving the organisation. This leads to increased costs for employers in relation to temporary staff, recruitment and retraining.

This Report serves as a timely reminder to employers to review their policies in relation to bullying. It is a good idea to have clear policies and procedures on dealing with bullying complaints and in particular, setting out effective reporting strategies and the process for the impartial investigation of any complaints.