Research looks into bullying in social work agencies

26 May 2017
"The Scream” by Edvard Munch evokes the emotions involved as we walk in the world of the victim of bullying. No one listens. The victim feels isolated.
A slide from Mike Webster's research presentation.

Bullying, whether in schools and workplaces, has long ceased to be the silent epidemic that it once was more than a decade ago. However, workplace bullying in the social service sector is a topic that isn’t often discussed in the media or research communities. Mike Webster, a lecturer in the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work, is one of a growing number of researchers in this area.

In a recent research titled “Challenging workplace bullying: the role of social work leadership integrity” Mike explores the “ethical and moral outrage provoked by the phenomenon of workplace bullying in social work agencies”. It is an “outrage” in the context of the common assumption that “the prime function of social work leadership is to implement organisational social justice” – but workplace bullying does happen. So, how common is workplace bullying in social work organisations in New Zealand? 

“We don't really know, although the leading social work academic in this field Prof Kate van Heugten, Canterbury University commented in 2010 that it may be quite common in human services. As far as social work is concerned there is a paucity of information. Later (in 2012) she suggested that workplace bullying is particularly common in hospitality, health, education and social services,” Mike explains.

In Mike’s research there is evidence of management collusion with bullying. The victim in one case he reported had to provide evidence that intimidation had occurred. In a second case a bully in a management role was reported as being quick to shut people down if he didn't agree with their ideas. The victim in the first case saw management as being ineffective.

“It's really important that people subject to bullying are supported to develop self-efficacy— that is, to come to the belief that they can change things around them. Professional supervision is a key resource for that change.

“Social work leadership is not confined to people with a formal management title. Those practitioners who are recognised informally as leaders can exercise influence to change the culture of the agency. They can contribute to change by asking questions such as ‘Is this the sort of behaviour we want?’ and developing a critical mass in the workforce which collectively confronts the unwanted behaviour,” Mike says.

Towards this end, Mike suggests that future research in social work leadership should focus on the values and actions for workplace wellbeing, using such models as the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Healthy Workplaces Model. The core principles of leadership, engagement, ethics, values, and worker involvement at the heart of the WHO model fit into research findings. 

Visit the International Association of Workplace Bullying and Harassment (IAWBH) website for resources on bullying and harassment.