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Home | Got a Minute | Bad bosses | No. 125 – Bullying in my workplace is affecting my mental health, but nobody will listen

No. 125 – Bullying in my workplace is affecting my mental health, but nobody will listen

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20 September 2023

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a Minute?” This week: burnout being ignored, bad behaviour getting laughed off and a complex dismissal.

I’m a senior public servant and have been involved in a project with external stakeholders with minimal support and a heavy workload. Two people from the stakeholder organisation have been bullying me, criticising my work, undermining my capabilities, creating unnecessary administrative burdens and humiliating me. I’ve gone from loving my job to having serious mental health issues and burnout. When I raised the behaviour with my executive, they have shrugged it off. Does my organisation have an obligation to take this seriously? What action can I take to have this addressed?

Thank you for your letter. Given the seriousness of what you have shared, I asked those in a position to help to share what they advise you should do. The Victorian Public Service Commissioner, Brigid Monagle; the Acting NSW Public Service Commissioner, Chris Lamb; and the Queensland Public Service Commissioner, David Mackie, all offer you their support, and jointly provide you this advice:

“We’re saddened to hear that your mental health is being impacted by a difficult stakeholder. All employers have a responsibility to protect their employees from inappropriate behaviour, whether that is coming from a colleague, a customer or a stakeholder.

It seems that you’ve tried to raise this issue informally, but had no success. You may want to start by talking about your situation to a trusted colleague. Alternatively, if you feel comfortable going to your executive’s boss you could do that, or it might be time to formalise your concerns.

Without knowing which state, or department you work in we can’t advise the exact steps you will need to follow, but your employer will have a policy which covers what to do if you experience bullying, and you should follow that.”

Bullying in any form – and from any person – shouldn’t be tolerated. It can indeed be tricky when the behaviour is coming from outside your organisation, but your mental health is not negotiable.

I am a woman working in a small team in a government department dominated by men. A female co-worker – who has aspirations of becoming the next team leader – backstabs, belittles, and shouts obscenities at others. She is unpleasant, snarky and difficult to work with, directing her bad behaviour at me and the only other woman in our team. Management is aware of this behaviour and have witnessed it first hand, but laugh it off. I enjoy my job, but if nothing changes soon, I will have to start seeking other opportunities. Is there anything I can do?

Toxic colleagues are such hard work, and it sounds like you definitely have one. In your situation, the people I would be focusing my frustrations on are management. If they know this is happening and tolerate it, frankly they are your bigger issue. Your management team sounds weak and inept and while they are in change, nothing is likely to change. While I could recommend you report your concerns to HR, without a strong leader in place to manage the fallout and counsel your colleague on her poor behaviour, things could end up getting worse. Realistically, I think you are best to search for other opportunities and leave this toxic culture behind.

I was directed by my boss to a three-month drug rehabilitation program. My boss then fired me because he said he “didn’t want to see my face”. Do I have a claim against the company for unfair dismissal and unreasonable demands?

It sounds like you have had quite a few complex issues to deal with. First, I hope you have been able to prioritise your recovery amidst all that is going on, and you have plenty of support around you. Please be sure to call Lifeline on 13 11 14 if you are experiencing distress at any time.

Regarding your workplace rights, it is hard for me to advise you based on the brief story you have shared but no one, in any situation, should have to tolerate a boss who says something like yours did. I recommend you seek some advice about your rights. You can get free legal advice from the Fair Work Commission, and they can help you decide whether you may have a claim.

To submit a question about work, careers or leadership, visit (you will not be asked to provide your name or any identifying information. Letters may be edited).

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