Bullying, duty of care and compensation

The growth of attention to psychosocial hazards in Australia received a considerable boost from a stress survey undertaken by the ACTU some years ago.  During the survey of union-members, it became clear that bullying was a major generator and perpetrator of workplace stress.  The unions went to town on this data and set the agenda for some time in OHS.  Their success was echoed and mirrored in the United Kingdom and Europe. (In fact, Europe seems to be the jurisdiction that has kept the momentum)

The survey and campaign got the attention of regulators and OHS professionals to the presence of, perhaps, the next generation of occupational health and safety activity.

Since that time psychosocial hazards have splintered into sub-groups of stress, occupational violence, workload, fatigue management, shift work, dignity at work and a range of other matters. However bullying persists as the front runner.

As with many elements of OHS, risk management and cultural studies the defence forces provide signposts to future civilian issues. Yesterday the Australian Defence Force agreed to pay ex-gratia payments to family members of defence personnel who had committed suicide as a result of bullying suffered at the hands of their colleagues.  There are many significant signposts from these incidents but one of particular note was that the payments were not made to dependents but to other family members.

According to the ABC radio report by Karen Barlow:

“The suicides date back up to 12 years, when Lance-Corporal Nicholas Shiels killed himself after accidentally shooting his best friend dead during Army training.

Private John Satatas hanged himself at Holsworthy Barracks, in western Sydney, five years ago after being bullied and racially taunted.

Private David Hayward committed suicide four years ago after he was injured and had gone AWOL.” 

The Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, was interviewed on this issue, and others, on Radio National on 23 October 2008 and  has referred the matter to a general review of the defence forces. Fitzgibbon acknowledged that “shortcomings in the defence force system” contributed to the situation and could have been better handled after the event.

The day before the media attention the Australian Defence Force released the findings of its annual attitudinal survey of personnel.  The 2007 survey found, according to a media statement:

“… a marked improvement in knowledge of mental health issues as well as members’ assessments of their own mental health. Since 1999, the data also shows an increasing proportion of personnel who believe that unacceptable behaviour is well managed.”

As Australia moves to a national OHS and workers compensation system, or at least a harmonised system, more attention should be given to some of the responses and OHS initiatives in Commonwealth departments as these will be just as influential on OHS law and management as any State initiative.

4 thoughts on “Bullying, duty of care and compensation”

  1. Thanks Kevin, I agree that would be a great case study to have at SIA, I would love to hear about what they have actually be doing to change the culture. I would be very interested in being involved should a group be brought together to tackle the issues of bullying prevention.

  2. Julie

    I think that the Defence Force attitudinal survey illustrates that some of the mental health techniques introduced over recent years seem to be working. It would be good to have a Defence Force representative talk about these techniques at next March\’s Safety In Action conference. Perhaps you can talk with the stream leader on that.

    A parallel consideration on bullying and mental health was presented overnight by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that has received considerable media attention this morning. Sadly the statistics are a picture of societal erosion which rely on OHS professionals like us and others to implement new strategies.

    I favour the broader social approach rather than focusing on workplaces. I aslo think there are greater opportunities by bringing together OHS people, sociologists, psychologists and social workers. Perhaps there is an OHS organisation out there with a suitable vision for such an approach

  3. I am constantly surprised that organisations focus on how well bullying \’incidents\’ are MANAGED rather than dealing with PREVENTION. I would love to know more about what training/awareness programs the defence force had in place at the time, and have in place now?

  4. I think it would have been more appropriate for Joel Fitzgibbon to have said that the review found \”shortcomings in the defence force MANAGEMENT\”.

    Effective people management can do much to reduce these hazzards. The military should be run with the same high standards of OHS management required in business and the Public Service.

    Use of the words \”system\” and \”systemic\” to explain shortcomings is a fudge to cover management shortcomings.

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