how to deal with bullying in the workplace

Everyone has the right to a workplace free from bullying.

Studies have shown that workplace bullying can have a significant impact on your wellbeing and job satisfaction. In this guide, we will explore practical strategies to deal with workplace bullying, understand its effects, protect your wellbeing, and provide support options for those affected.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying involves repeated mistreatment or harmful behaviour towards an individual at work. Harmful behaviours can harm the person they are directed at and anyone who witnesses the behaviour. It can include verbal bullying, social bullying, physical bullying, or cyberbullying. The key characteristic of workplace bullying is the repetitive nature of the mistreatment, creating a hostile and intimidating environment for the targeted individual. 

The Fair Work commission defines workplace bullying as: 

  • a person or a group of people behaving unreasonably towards a worker or a group of workers at work AND 
  • this happens more than once AND 
  • this creates a risk to health and safety. 

Not all behaviour that makes you upset or anxious at work is bullying. For example, if someone makes a comment but they only do it once, Fair Work states that this is not bullying even though it might have had a negative impact on you.  

What can workplace bullying look like?

Some types of workplace bullying may not always be obvious, but knowing the signs is important to help you deal with the problem. Here are some common examples defined by The Fair Work Commission: 


Bullying often involves excluding or isolating someone from work-related activities or conversations. This could include regularly excluding you from work-related events (such as a weekly team lunch), unexpectedly reducing your shifts or not being as flexible with shifts compared to other staff, consistently giving certain tasks to you and not others, or excluding you from important discussions relevant to your work. 

Aggressive communication

Yelling, shouting, or using offensive or derogatory language is not only disrespectful, it can challenge your feelings of safety and self-esteem, and also creates a negative work environment for everyone. 

Unwarranted/constant criticism

Constant and unwarranted criticism aimed at undermining your work can be a form of bullying.  


Bullies may use manipulation tactics to control or intimidate you. This can include unfair treatment, passive-aggressive comments, sabotaging your work, or spreading rumours to damage your professional reputation. 


By being aware of these behaviours, you can identify workplace bullying before it escalates, and work with your organisation to address it. 

What is the difference between bullying, harassment, discrimination (vs performance management)?

While workplace bullying shares similarities with harassment and discrimination, it is important to understand the differences to help identify the problem and respond appropriately. It’s also important to know that these do not always happen separately. Sometimes, they can overlap or happen at the same time. Here is a brief overview of each: 

Bullying is when someone keeps doing mean or hurtful things to another person over and over again.

Harassment means being unkind to someone in a way that makes them feel scared, upset, or embarrassed. It happens when someone treats another person badly because of things like their race, religion, sex or gender, national origin, or disability. This can include things like making mean jokes about a group of people, sending messages that are not appropriate, or making someone uncomfortable at work. There is a fine line between the definitions of harassment and discrimination – you could check out this fact sheet from the Australian Human Rights Commission which covers harassment in more detail.

Discrimination happens when someone or a group of people treat another person or group unfairly because of who they are or where they come from. It’s treating others badly based on things they can't control, like their background or personal traits. For example, it's not right to decide not to hire someone because of their race or because of their gender, or to leave someone out of a work event just because they have a disability. If you’d like more information, you could check out other areas of workplace discrimination from the Australian Human Rights Commission website.

Performance management

Performance management is a way of making sure that people in a job are doing the best they can. Imagine you're working in your dream job. You'd want to know how well you're doing and how you can get better, right? Well, that's what performance management is all about. Fair feedback aimed at professional growth and development is not considered bullying.

It is important to know the difference between these so that you can address workplace issues appropriately. You can check out this fact sheet from The Australian Human Rights Commission or this guide from The Fair Work Ombudsman for more detailed information about workplace discrimination, harassment and bullying. 

Possible effects of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying can have negative effects on you, your colleagues and the work environment. Some potential consequences include: 

The stress and anxiety caused by workplace bullying can lead to a range of health issues. These may include increased anxiety, depression, insomnia, or headaches. 

Continuous bullying can make it difficult for you to find fulfillment and motivation in your work. An environment where bullying occurs can create a sense of dread and can impact negatively on your wellbeing. 

Constant stress and distraction resulting from bullying behaviour can hinder your ability to focus and perform at your best. 

If you're experiencing workplace bullying, you may need time away from work to recover and seek support. This can lead to increased sick leave or absences, which could result in financial worries if you don’t have any personal leave.

When someone is bullying you in the workplace, you may find it hard to trust others and collaborate as part of a team.

The emotional toll and lack of support can make it hard for you to continue working in this environment, and if that’s the case, you may be considering resigning or looking for another job. While this is certainly an option, it can be worthwhile to seek support from your workplace to address the bullying first, especially if you like your job and most of the people you work with. 

What to do if you're experiencing bullying at work

If you find yourself experiencing bullying in the workplace, taking action is vital. This might be very hard to do but for your wellbeing, it’s really important. Taking action is also an opportunity for professional growth. Here are practical steps to consider: 

Document incidents: If possible, keep a detailed record of each bullying incident, including the date, approximate time, location, what was said or done, and how it made you feel. If there were any witnesses, note their names as well. This documentation will be really helpful if further action is required. 

Check your workplace bullying policy: Understanding your rights and the available support systems is essential in navigating this challenging situation. If you work for a small business or if these policies are unavailable for any reason, remember, all employers have an obligation under occupational health and safety legislation to eliminate or reduce the risks to employees' health and safety caused by workplace bullying. The Fair Work Commission can support in these instances.  

Talk to a trusted supervisor or Human Resources:  Provide them with the documented incidents and express your concerns. They should guide you through the appropriate channels and take necessary actions to address the issue. These conversations are confidential, but it doesn’t hurt to reinforce your right to confidentiality and ask who else will be informed just so that you are aware of what to expect next.  

Seek legal help: In severe cases where workplace bullying continues despite taking appropriate steps internally, consulting with an employment lawyer can help you understand your legal rights and explore potential legal actions

Take care of yourself: Reach out for support if you feel like you need it. You could try some tips for a healthy headspace or talk to a trusted person such as a family member, friend, team member, Elder or counsellor. Young people report that one of the worst parts of bullying is the feeling of isolation, which is why it’s so important to seek support if you’re experiencing bullying in the workplace. 

Should you approach the bully?  

Approaching the bully directly, if you feel safe doing so, can sometimes be an effective way to address the situation. Be assertive, remain calm, express how their behaviour is impacting you, and request that it stops. Sometimes, the person may not be entirely aware of how their actions are affecting others. However, prioritise your personal safety and wellbeing throughout this process and only do this if you are comfortable and feel safe doing so.  

This is definitely not something you have to do, although your supervisor or HR representative may ask if you have attempted to resolve the situation before they take action on your behalf. Make sure you tell someone what you plan to do before you approach the bully, and it could be helpful to make sure there are others around to support you. 

Actions to take when witnessing bullying

If you witness bullying happening to a colleague, there are some things you can do to support them. Here are some steps you can take: 

1. Ensure the person's safety: If it is safe to do so, intervene and offer assistance to the person being bullied. You could comfort them and let them know you’re willing to help them navigate the situation. If you don’t feel safe or comfortable intervening at the time, you could approach the person afterwards and see if they want to talk about the situation.  

2. Document the incident: Take note of the date, time, location, and details of the incident. This documentation can be essential if further action needs to be taken or if the situation escalates. It could be helpful to suggest they speak to their manager about the incident, or you could offer to do so on their behalf if you’re comfortable doing that for them. 

Supporting your colleagues and standing up against workplace bullying encourages a workplace culture of respect and unity, reinforcing a zero-tolerance approach to bullying at work.  

Where to get support from outside of work?

If the situation does not improve or you require additional support, there are external resources available to help you: 

Counselling or mental health support

Professional mental health support can provide guidance and support you in coping with the effects of workplace bullying.  It can help you develop strategies to manage stress and heal from the experience. 

Helplines or support organisations

Many organisations offer a helpline or online chat service staffed by trained professionals. This is called an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). These services can provide advice, support, and information on dealing with workplace bullying. These services are completely free and confidential, whatever you share remains private, and will not be shared with your employer or colleagues. 

Prioritise your wellbeing

Most importantly, don’t forget to take care of yourself and reach out for support. Talk to someone you trust and let them know what’s going on and how you’re feeling. Although it can be hard to seek support from others, it can be validating and helps you feel less alone.  


Use the supports available to you through work, talk to someone you trust, and remember – it's not your fault. Seeking support is not a sign of weakness but a proactive step towards finding a resolution and improving your wellbeing at work.

Remember, you deserve to work in an environment that values your wellbeing and promotes positive interactions among colleagues. You play an important role in this too, as creating a respectful and inclusive work environment requires a commitment from everyone in the workplace to stand against bullying. Find more helpful resources and support services.

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If you're aged 15 - 25 and want some general advice or support understanding your rights at work, get free and confidential support from headspace Work & Study and sign up for one-on-one support.  

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Last reviewed October 2023.

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Fair Work Ombudsman. (n.d). Bullying in the workplace.

Fair Work Ombudsman. (n.d). Protection from discrimination at work.

Fair Work Ombudsman. (n.d). Dealing with workplace bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination as a young person.

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Hansen, Å. M., Hogh, A., Persson, R., Karlson, B., Garde, A. H., & Ørbaek, P. (2006). Bullying at work, health outcomes, and physiological stress response. Journal of psychosomatic research, 60(1), 63-72.

Indeed. (Updated 2022, November 17). What is EAP? Employee Assistance Program Definition, Benefits and How It Works.

Youth Central. (n.d) Bullying and violence at work.

Wolke, D., & Lereya, S. T. (2015). Long-term effects of bullying. Archives of disease in childhood, 100(9), 879–885.

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