Are workplace bullies on the rise?

A Canberra Times article late last month claimed that trauma from workplace bullying in the public service has become the largest item for mental-stress related compensation claims. The cost to our tax bill is close to $80 million.

Mental harm claims have almost doubled since 2009 and nearly 40 percent of the 2013-14 claimants said bullying or harassment in the workplace left them unable to work. Another 8 percent claimed to have been traumatised by "exposure to workplace violence".

The findings are staggering on one level - are they reflective of the greater stress people operate under in our workplaces or do they point to a greater willingness for employees to speak up against bullying? Recent high profile examples, such as the forced resignation of the Victorian Small Business Minister, Adem Somyurek, reveal that our community, quite rightly, perceives workplace bullying as totally unacceptable. In fact some social commentators have claimed that the sustained booing of AFL player, Adam Goodes is an example of workplace bullying.

At the the heart of the matter, like all cases of abuse, is the misuse of power and/or authority. Diedrich Bonhoeffer, who was keenly aware of the abuse of power in its most insidious form, perceptively wrote, "the first moment when a man meets another person he is looking for a strategic position he can assume and hold over against that person". This bias of holding something "over against" another, without appropriate checks and balances, can become a powerful beast.

How wonderful when we turn to the pages of the New Testament when we read the apostle Paul speak to the church which existed in economies based on slave labour, telling those who were slave owners to "provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know you have a Master in heaven." Even legal ownership in the pagan Roman Empire is no excuse for inequity. Christians are to march to the beat of another drum.

I had the privilege of attending a small meeting this morning where Scott Rae, the Professor of Christian Ethics, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University spoke on the topic of faith and work. While Professor Rae said a great many helpful things about the value of all non-sinful work as being legitimate Christian ministry, the one thing that stuck in my mind was an anecdote he told about his father, who was a business owner. As I recall him saying, his father owned a factory where he employed approximately 250 workers. He knew the names of each of his employees and would spend the first hour of his day walking the factory floor and greet each of his staff. So powerful was his relationship with his employees, there was never a move to unionise this workplace. There was a genuine position of trust between employer and employees.

What a powerful story! It is true that not all Christians will be in such a position of power to impact their workplaces to such an extent, but it is nonetheless a reminder of the light we can bear in the midst of a generation that is calling out for justice and equity in its workplaces. Let us all strive to bring whatever light the Lord gives us wherever we work.