Workplace bullying in the dental profession

workplace bullying in the dental profession

For the safety and wellbeing of your staff, it’s important to identify harassment and bullying in the workplace early, writes James Gallaway

Of all workplace safety issues, bullying and harassment create a special danger because they operate so destructively in a cloud of conflicting perceptions about how human beings perform at work.

“Nevertheless,” says Dr Deborah Cole, CEO of Dental Health Services Victoria and chair of the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, “when we got together with other health sector organisations to sign the joint position on bullying and harassment, late last year, we got it done in one night because everyone in the room had some personal experience with harassment and abuse.

“Clearly, to keep our patients safe we need to be sure our staff are safe too,” she says. “You can’t have a situation where a patient needs critical attention and someone is running out of the room in tears.”

In their legal form, bullying and harassment are defined as repeated and unreasonable behaviour that create a risk to health and safety. But the subjective idea of what reasonable behaviour actually is creates a grey area of interpretation that involves shifting attitudes about work culture.

“We decided that it was important to help people to understand what was and what wasn’t acceptable and to get them to call the behaviour early,” Dr Cole says. To illustrate the question of what is reasonable and acceptable, she says she hit upon the idea of calling behaviour above or below the line.

“In this way,” she says, “a culture of understanding builds around a perceived line that people work together and share.”

Dr Cole understands that everyone is going to have a different idea about where the behaviour line is. There are times, she says, when people can start thinking that, because everyone else is greeted in the morning and they are left out, that they are being targeted.

“Managers don’t realise or perceive that they are being bullies or that their conduct is or could be perceived by others as bullying. They are operating according to the value system they thrive in. They are often highly competitive successful people who are not conscious of the sensitivities of others they work with.”—Robin Young, Holmann Webb

“It’s a very human reaction. If they speak up early and make their feelings known, others can quickly respond and explain that nothing untoward was intended,” she says.

Dr Cole says that medical and dental work places have a tendency, particularly given their historical context, to be hierarchical. But she doesn’t think that the shift in dental practices, since the 1980s, from a greater percentage of partnerships and self-employed dentists to larger corporate arrangements, has created greater scope for bullying and harassment to occur.

“In smaller practices you have one person with all the power; in situations where larger groups work in the same place, there is more opportunity to create policy as a team for everyone’s benefit,” she says.

“Policy creation that provides clarity about what is reasonable management action and defines a person’s job description are essential tools for dealing with harassment and bullying. But the policies must be understood,” she says. “Except for situations related to critical need, we closed our facility for a day and worked through these issues carefully so that everyone understood what was expected.

“They have to know how bullying and harassment operate as a distinctly different set of circumstances from reasonable requests related to performance and doing your job properly,” she says.

On this point, Robin Young, partner at the Sydney law firm Holman Webb, agrees. “Often,” he says, “managers don’t realise or perceive that they are being bullies or that their conduct is or could be perceived by others as bullying. They are operating according to the value system they thrive in. They are often highly competitive successful people who are not conscious of the sensitivities of others they work with.”

For Robin Young, bullying episodes in professional settings often come from different standpoints of perception.

“We decided that it was important to help people to understand what was and what wasn’t acceptable and to get them to call the behaviour early.”—Dr Deborah Cole, CEO, Dental Health Services Victoria

On the other side of this perception are often highly sensitive people who regard any confrontation or adverse behaviours as bullying. According to Young, people in this position “will often interpret the most insignificant things as bullying. Being put on performance management or even something as ordinary as not being greeted in the morning or simple looks, could be interpreted as bullying behaviour.”

Having good policies in place is an important management tool for dealing with bullying complaints. But they must be policies that management and employees are familiar with through regular review, training and implementation. According to Young, “Having policies in place is one thing, but you have to make sure people understand and apply them. They are an important opportunity for employers to put themselves in a better position, if things take a turn for the worse.”

Moves to get health services to sign last year’s joint agreement among health professionals to stamp out bullying began as a response to the Victorian Auditor General’s report into Bullying and Harassment in the Health Sector, which was released in March 2016. Signatories to the agreement included the Universities of Melbourne, La Trobe, RMIT, along with Dental Health Services Victoria, the Dental Hygienists Association and others.

The report identified ‘insufficient priority, leadership and accountability in addressing the risk of bullying and harassment’ and found that ‘key controls are either inadequately implemented or missing, including effective early intervention or formal complaints processes.’

The Auditor General’s report sheeted home blame for the inability of health sector agencies to effectively prevent or respond to high levels of inappropriate behaviour to a lack of strong sector-wide leadership and guidance.

At its worst, bullying and harassment creates psychological injuries that draw headlines with suicides and enormous payouts in compensation to victims, but the toll on workplaces and work culture are also damaging to an organisation’s success.

Dr Cole believes that bullying will never be fully eliminated, but the trend in creating respectful workplaces will continue through campaigns of greater awareness that encourage everyone to call out behaviour when it happens.

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