Bullying in the workplace is something that's rarely discussed, but it should be, as those whose lives it affects can be shattered forever.
Workplace bullying costs Australian businesses an estimated $36 billion a year.
In Victoria, the recently passed Brodie's Law has made bullying at work a criminal offence, but in every other state it's still not against the law.
Karen Carr lives a hair’s breadth from becoming yet another bullying statistic. She barely hangs on each day, having suffered months of ridicule, abuse and sabotage in a job she loved.
“It has reduced me to a shadow of my former self," Carr said.
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One in five Australian workers is bullied at work, with almost half of all victims simply leaving their jobs. It’s an epidemic that’s getting worse, and no company or industry is immune.
"This is an insidious disease that's of epidemic proportions," Carr said.
“Bullying is premeditated. It is intentional, repeated assault."
Carr still thinks of suicide daily. She is unable to return to work of any kind, and a successful career in newspapers has been destroyed by a pack of frenzied workmates. Despite this, she is the one punished, and the bullies have not even been reprimanded. “I am viewed as the criminal in this, and I am made to feel like that. Whereas the bullies are all living life just as they were seven years ago."
Nine years of constant harassment and bullying has left gentle giant Rob a quivering wreck, after he suffered a complete mental breakdown from taunts and abuse. Now his wife Tina is terrified to leave him alone, even for a minute. "It came to the point where Tina had to full-on wrestle me to the ground to get a knife off of me, because I was going to slit my throat," said Rob.
Workplace bullying, says Rob, destroyed his life.
“It was a day-to-day fight just to keep him from hurting himself, from killing himself, just to keep him alive,” Tina said. Rob now survives on a small pharmacy of pills and potions to get through every day. “People don't realise how serious bullying can be, and what it can do. People just think it's names in a schoolyard, but it is so much more than that," he explained.
Telstra linesman Levin Madeley is another bullying victim hounded out of his work by unrealistic pressures, crazy deadlines and workplace bullying. “I ended up having to go to the doctor before I did something really stupid," Madeley said. His wife Jenny knew something was wrong, but has no idea just how wrong or serious it was. “You think you know somebody really well, and Levin is my soul mate, so to not know that he was that close (to suicide), it hurts a lot," Jenny said.
Sadly some do take that terrible, final step. Nineteen-year-old Brodie Panlock jumped from a multi-story car park after enduring more than a year of workmates treating her like dirt at a Melbourne cafe. She was spat on, called fat and ugly, and once had fish sauce poured all over her. Under the tougher laws in Victoria, three so-called ‘workmates’ and the cafe owner were fined more than $300,000 after the all pleaded guilty.
Victoria is the only state to make bullying a crime, but is that enough?
Doctor Carlo Caponechia is doing a nation-wide study of workplace bullying and its terrible costs. He has been shocked by what he's uncovered. “One of the negatives is that it's not preventative. It takes for something bad to happen, like suicide or death or someone feeling very threatened and humiliated, and really negatively affected by this," Dr Caponechia said. “People are being hurt and they shouldn't be hurt in the course of their work."
But how do you fix a problem where the bulk of victims are too frightened to come forward?
According to Dr Caponechia “You have to make it safe for people to report, and you have to make sure people know how to report."
Carr is still waiting for her case to reach court. She’s hanging on, day by day, and praying for justice, but unable to banish her demons. “I will never forget. How can you forget an event that basically takes your life away as you knew it?"
- Workplace bullying information - www.reachout.com
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263)