When I tell people the story of how I endured three years of workplace bullying in the resources and construction industry in Australia, they often ask me if I blame the industry itself. My answer is a definitive no.
All industries have pockets of bullies. The predominant factors that lead to bullying and allow it to flourish (ineffectual leadership, toxic organisational culture and poor bullying awareness) can be present anywhere. Resource industries (including construction) offer employment opportunities that I firmly believe more women should actively pursue: the personal and professional rewards can be incredible.
Originally from Wales, I was excited to take up an HR position in 2014 at a Darwin-based oil and gas construction project in northern Australia. Part of my job was to provide support for the many FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) workers employed onsite. While there, I was able to identify gaps in mental health support within the industry and develop a workplace culture program that made a positive difference to employee well-being. I created safe and supportive work environments and, over time, received numerous industry awards and ministerial recognition for my work.
The irony of all this was that behind the scenes, I was being subjected to prolonged bullying by my own HR manager, whose narcissistic leadership style included physical and emotional intimidation, misogyny, threats, harassment and verbal abuse. This onslaught led to extreme anxiety and eventually to my stress-related hospitalisation. I eventually left the company, fearing for my health.
However, through adversity can come great knowledge and success. That challenging personal experience turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It propelled me along a path to learn everything I could about the complicated relationships that exist between bullying, organisational culture, resilience and emotional health.
Today, I run Bullyology, a worldwide business dedicated to breaking the silence on bullying while promoting healthy relationships in workplaces, at schools and in the cyber-world. Through my online courses, speaking engagements, books, workshops and collaborations with like-minded organisations, I educate business leaders on the proactive steps they can take to create a more positive, inclusive and productive workplace where bullying doesn’t stand a chance.
Being a young female thrown into a whole new role in a new country and tasked with running mental health programs was both scary and exciting. Several things changed for me. In the UK, I had worked full time in the construction industry, and run youth outreach programs in the evening (while judging studying a Youth and Community degree). In Australia, the site workforce covered the entire age spectrum and I dealt with a huge and complex range of sensitive employee issues including depression, alcoholism, addictions, relationship issues, homesickness (many workers were young and from overseas) and cultural adjustments.
Working on a remote Australian jobsite brings its own set of challenges. Because of the vast distances between major cities and many of these sites, workers are flown in and out. This system can put a real strain on family life and lead to an unsettled feeling that’s hard to shake. FIFO is quite common in the construction and mining industries in Australia – an estimated 65,000 Aussie workers are employed under fly-in, fly-out work arrangements within the Resources sector.
There’s also this interesting thing Down Under called ‘tall poppy syndrome’ where someone who has a bit of success may be seen as ‘above everyone else’ and therefore subject to jealousy or ridicule. In some work/social situations, being a high-achiever isn’t always viewed as a plus. On occasion, this mindset can even lead to ‘workplace mobbing’ – a type of bullying in which strong achievers are pressured to underperform so they don’t make their colleagues look bad. This ‘don’t-get-too-big-for-your-boots’ mentality isn’t just an Aussie phenomenon, however – it happens all over the world and is largely fuelled by job insecurity.
Positive strides are being made in Australia with bullying awareness but as with everywhere else, there’s still plenty of work to be done. For example, during my own bullying experience, I submitted more than 30 complaints to managers about individual incidents. The result was that management largely turned a blind eye – buck-passing was the default reaction. I was constantly placated but nothing was ever done to address the toxic workplace culture and leadership failures that led to the bullying in the first place.
Construction is the third largest employer in Australia – yet it’s also the most male-dominated sector. Around 99% of construction tradespeople in the country are males and roughly 9 out of ten construction managers and professionals are men as well. Research has shown that a number of factors hamper the recruitment, career progression and retention of women in the Aussie construction industry:
- Sexism –
Sexist language, attitudes and actions continue to permeate the construction field. I faced this with my own bully, who targeted me because I was young, female, good at my job and socially collaborative – all of which he saw as a threat to his misogynistic view of the workplace. His respect for women was zero and I was certainly not the only female he belittled and intimidated.
- Lack of flexibility and long hours –
A typical construction tradesperson might arrive on site at 5:30am and not leave until sunset. Admin staff and construction managers often take work home with them and may pull a 6-day week. There’s not a lot of tolerance for anyone (male or female) who doesn’t commit to their jobs 100%. Part-time or shared work arrangements simply don’t exist on many jobsites. When there are tight deadlines to meet and budgets to rein in, flexibility doesn’t get much of a look in. This ‘work is everything’ approach doesn’t do much to attract females with family commitments (especially the care of small children at home) who would benefit from a more flexible approach.
As I discovered through my daily interactions with construction employees, this industry doesn’t always appreciate the stresses and demands it places on emotional health and life away from the jobsite. Living and working in remote locations creates higher rates of depression and anxiety – employees have a feeling of emotional and social isolation to go along with their physical isolation. For example, one Australian university study found that rates of depression amongst FIFO workers was twice that of non-FIFO workers.
- Gender equality –
This can also be an issue. With the right support, leadership and solid mentoring, women can and do make inroads into this industry and some do quite well – but high-level female construction managers are still a rarity in Australia. More can be done to retain the females already in the sector as well: one Aussie study found that women leave the construction industry nearly 40% faster than their male colleagues.
- Post-parental leave support –
It can be tricky for women to return to the construction workforce after an absence due to parental leave, despite the existence of formal parental leave policies. Many companies look upon parental leave as something that costs construction projects time and money, so there’s less support in this area than there could be. Because of this, some women end up not returning to construction after their parental leave period is over – even if they’d like to. Construction must find a way to become more compatible with caring responsibilities if it is to attract and retain its hard-working female workforce.
When you compare female construction workers in Australia with their counterparts in the UK, it’s interesting that although the landscapes can be totally different, many of the challenges are quite similar. For example, 99% of all UK construction site workers are male – roughly the same figure as in Australia. And the assorted issues of sexism on worksites, long hours, lack of more flexible work opportunities and gender equality certainly rear their heads in the UK as well.
Only 14% of UK entrants to engineering and technology first-degree courses are female and we have the lowest proportion of women engineers in Europe.
I think governments can do more to create incentives for women to take up construction as a profession but ultimately, many of the hurdles stem from the same issues I faced as a victim of workplace bullying: toxic workplace cultures and a lack of strong leadership, both on an individual worksite level and in the industry as a whole.
My own experiences in the construction field certainly had their ups and downs but I wouldn’t have traded them for anything. They helped mould me into the fierce and determined anti-bullying advocate I am today and gave me the knowledge, strength and motivation to create Bullyology, a truly international business that promotes healthy workplaces, coaches and mentors women in construction (and other industries) and raises global awareness of bullying, harassment and the vital role that strong leadership plays in the fostering of positive and inclusive workplace environments.
I believe there are several ways employers and managers can better support their workers, especially those on the kinds of remote jobsites common in outback Australia:
- Promote open and honest communication that goes both ways and is based on mutual respect. View employees as human beings, not just tools that are used to increase profit. Give them a voice. Ask them how they’re feeling, what might be causing them stress, how their work relationships are going. Talk about their home life, their hobbies, their plans for the weekend. Make them feel valued.
- Foster a workplace where safety (both physical and emotional) is a priority – and where employees are empowered and encouraged to look after each other. An environment where workers bond as mates instead of seeing each other as competitors gets good work done. A spirit of community brings team success – a spirit of fear and insecurity drags a worksite down.
- Look after the well-being of workers: promote healthy eating, fun exercise and social activities; provide the necessary emotional support for those who are struggling. Be tuned in to each worker’s personal and professional needs by being observant and truly listening. Understand that feeling isolated is a dangerous and unproductive mental condition for any employee.
- Act assertively when any issue crops up that can affect workplace morale, whether it’s sexism, bullying, harmful gossip, micromanagement or anything else. Don’t let conflicts boil up and bubble over. Be honest, upfront and proactive when dealing with negative workplace behaviours; they only get worse if ignored or excused. Earn employee trust by setting an example as a positive change-maker. Reward your employees when they excel.
I would never have achieved the successes I’m having as The Bullyologist without the time I spent in and around the construction industry in the UK and Australia. Through the good, the bad, the disappointing and the intensely rewarding, it all made a positive difference in my life and I cherish the opportunities it provided me to grow and to find my true voice. Change happens when one person believes things can be better – and in their own small way, keep pushing to nudge the status quo in the right direction.
Jessica Hickman was born in Wales and moved to Australia in 2013. Through a three-year personal ordeal with workplace bullying, she empowered herself to become a dynamic activist and global advocate in the field of bullying, mental health and positive relationships. She is the founder of Bullyology, a professional anti-bullying methodology dedicated to tackling the global scourge of bullying while striving to promote healthy relationships in workplaces, at schools and online.
You can contact her at email@example.com for information on anti-bullying workshops, keynote speaking, books, campaigns, resources and more. Her best-selling book The Bullyologist is available in paperback and as an eBook.