Cyberbullying of Australian public servants has been put firmly back in the national spotlight after university research revealed at least 430 alleged incidents in the past six months alone.
The research, by QUT’s Dr Felicity Lawrence, consisted of three studies “involving more than 600 public sector participants from across Australia”.
Of those participants, it found 72 percent of public servants “reported experiencing or observing task- and person-related cyberbullying over the past six months.”
About the same number reported their workplaces as “highly stressful”, according to the research.
“Crucially, nearly half of participants reported a negative impact on their work performance and productivity,” Dr Lawrence said.
Dr Lawrence said public servants sometimes make decisions that can adversely impact other staff or clients, and as a result “may receive aggressive and bullying emails, YouTube videos or social media posts from the affected staff or clients.”
“Government employees view this online behaviour as more intense than face-to-face bullying as cyberbullying crosses work and home boundaries and can follow them from job to job, state to state, and is difficult to stop or remove from the internet,” she said.
“[In addition], the public servants I surveyed indicated that there’s a kind of ‘cyber-underground’ that has created a hidden negative online workplace culture where some employees feel they are free to harass and bully one another and yet remain unaccountable for their behaviour.”
Dr Lawrence said even one bullying or defamatory post could cause lasting damage for its victim, partly because of the difficulty of removing it from the internet.
She urged the Government to develop “federal anti-cyberbullying legislation covering all Australian workplaces”.
Prior to QUT’s numbers, the last published guidance on cyber-bullying instances came from the 2012-13 State of the Service report – the Federal Government’s yearly snapshot of public service statistics.
The report relies in part on numbers drawn from an annual census of federal public service employees.
The census drew 102,219 responses that year, and the report identified 2 percent had been cyberbullied, which would equate to around 2044 employees.
“While the incidence of cyberbullying is currently low relative to other forms of bullying and harassment (two percent) of employee census respondents reported experiencing this behaviour in 2013), the impacts it causes are no less severe,” the APSC said at the time.
“The impact of increased social media use on incidence of cyberbullying is yet unknown and the Commission is working with agencies to develop guidance to support agencies and employees in dealing with this behaviour.”
That advice was released later in 2013.
A breakout of cyberbullying numbers was not provided in subsequent editions of State of the Service.
In an editorial accompanying reporting on the latest QUT numbers, Fairfax opined that laws by themselves were unlikely to “halt or even ameliorate the evil of cyberbullying”, instead saying that much of the answer lay in addressing it at a social or cultural level.
However, it lauded the research and said that “the start of the year is an appropriate time to call on the government to take a genuine leadership role on this problem, and to warn it of the ramifications of the failure to act.”
“We believe the nation's valued public servants deserve a better deal and accordingly, call for a national conversation to discuss the most appropriate mix of legislation and education, in the search for the best strategy,” Fairfax added.