SUFFERING IN SILENCE; 'Alarming' levels of bullying in Welsh councils could be just tip of iceberg.
HUNDREDS of staff could be suffering in silence at the hand of a bullying culture in some Welsh councils, a leading trade union official has warned.
The revelation came after an investigation by Wales on Sunday discovered that nearly 200 council staff in Wales have complained of being bullied at work in the past 18 months.
Unison, the leading trade union for local government staff, described our figures as "alarming" - but warned they could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Local authorities have denied suggestions of a bullying culture, and said they had tough policies in place to crack down on bullies.
But our figures - released by 20 of 22 of Wales' unitary authorities under the Freedom of Information Act - show there have been at least eight allegations of physical attacks since January 2009.
And six staff have either been fired or left their jobs in connection with bullying claims, while as many as nine council workers have been forced to move into other departments.
There were at least 45 allegations of verbal bullying across the period, as well as claims of harassment, inciting others to bully, and sexual harassment.
Five of the eight alleged physical attacks were reported by staff at Bridgend council, while one employee claimed to have been subjected to an assault while working at Caerphilly council.
Unison Cymru Secretary Paul O'Shea expressed fears that ongoing financial cutbacks could mean more staff end up being picked on at work.
He said: "Sadly, workplace bullying is still a prevalent issue throughout local authorities in Wales.
"Contact with our members is showing that more and more workers are experiencing bullying while at work - a trend which I fear will actually increase as spending cuts become a reality and workers start to feel the strain of an increased workload.
"Although the figures presented here are alarming, I am concerned that they may not in fact be truly representative of the situation.
"A recent survey undertaken by Unison showed that 32% of workers are suffering in silence. As the cuts bite, and more workers fear for their job security, I believe that even fewer people will come forward to report incidences of bullying."
Vaughan Gething, an employment solicitor at Thompsons in Cardiff, said many workers chose not to make complaints for fear of making things worse for themselves.
He said: "Workplace bullying is always a very difficult issue. The reality is that most people don't want to complain formally, usually because they are being bullied by a superior and they feel it could make their situation worse.
"So the number of formal complaints would mask the number of people that feel they are being bullied."
And he said people may not report bullies for fear of not being taken seriously or it damaging their position, particularly in a fragile economic situation where jobs are at a premium. He said: "Often people don't feel in a position to do something. They may be worried about being dismissed because they fear being seen as a troublemaker."
A number of the bullying complaints related to situations where staff felt they were being picked on by their line manager.
Eight of the 19 complaints received by Rhondda Cynon Taf Council were from employees making allegations against their line managers, including: Sending threatening e-mails; Breaching confidentiality; Undermining members of staff; Excluding staff.
But a spokesperson for the council denied there was a problem between line managers and their staff.
They said: "The council is one of the biggest employers in Wales and has nearly 14,000 employees - it is not therefore unusual to find that some of them may not always be happy.
"However, with only 19 allegations made over a 16-month period, it is not considered to be a major problem.
"The council is confident that the procedures in place to deal with this type of allegation are working and there is no division between line managers and staff."
Mr O'Shea said being bullied was incredibly traumatic, and councils had to ensure they were doing all they could to protect and support their staff.
He said: "Many people do not realise the serious consequences that bullying behaviour can have upon a person - the impact can be devastating.
"Serious mental and physical illness is a common result for those being bullied and this can have a damaging effect on these workers for the rest of their lives.
"The recession has surely added to this problem and the cost to employers, to cover absence and replace trained staff, makes it clear that tackling bullying also makes economic sense.
"Local authorities need to ensure that they are being proactive when tackling issues of workplace bullying.
"They need to ensure that they have robust policies that deal with the issues and that ensure that individuals feel adequately protected and supported when reporting such concerns."
A spokesperson for Bridgend council - which had the highest number of complaints in Wales with 22 - said its stance on bullying was clear.
"While we cannot discuss individual cases, Bridgend County Borough Council has robust, clear policies in place to ensure that all employees understand what is expected of them and can behave appropriately.
"If any allegations are received, the matter is fully investigated and all appropriate actions are taken."
WORRIED: Paul O'Shea