A feature article on workplace bullying in The Age newspaper on 10 March 2010 has the additional or secondary benefit of again raising the relevance of “restorative justice” to the issue of occupational safety and health.
The main element of the article is the McGregor family who had two children commit suicide over related issues. The son, Stuart McGregor, described as being chronically depressed, was being bullied at work. He confided in his sister, Angela McGregor, over the issues. Angela had been bullied at school. Alannah killed herself. A month later, Stuart followed.
WorkSafe investigated the bullying at Stuart’s place of work, substantiated Stuart’s claims are is determining what further action to take. The newspaper reports that there may be insufficient evidence to pursue the case through the Courts.
What the reporter, Helen Westerman, does is to relate the grief and hurt of the parents to the potential benefits of the application of “restorative justice” in workplace incidents. Melbourne research into the application of restorative justice in workplaces is being led by John Bottomley of the Creative Ministries Network. In 2009, Bottomley released several reports into the concept’s application at an event that SafetyAtWorkBlog was privileged to attend.
Although deaths through suicide were not specifically mentioned in the consultative report, several interviews with families who have had someone die at work mention work-related issues and bullying as factors that contributed to the suicide.
“[My son] died from suicide related to the bullying. . . . I believe that the bullying was the one thing that, if you took that out of it, he would still be alive.”
One suicide-related quote illustrates very well how a formal process of restorative justice can provide some satisfaction to those left behind and some dignity to the dead:
“I’ve done my own type of restorative justice. I’ve gone to and what I call ‘faced’ all these people who made statements [to the insurer] . . . trying to make it sound like [my son]’s suicide was because for other reasons rather than his work. So I had a long list of about 25 people . . . I went to see them and took the statement with me and said: ‘But you know us. You know this person. How could you say that?’ Most of them were gracious and the questions they were asked made it sound like the answers were different. Some of them wouldn’t face me. . . . Going to all the people . . . just gave me back some power over myself, not over what had happened. It made me feel that I’m back in control of how this affects me, rather than all those letters and statements saying that we were bad parents and that [my son] was a bad person. They didn’t know him at all. It was just all this really negative stuff that was made to look like his death wasn’t to do with [work]. And I understood that, but I wanted to face the people who had said it. And I got a lot of satisfaction out of that.”
There are some similarities in this quote to some of the comments elsewhere on SafetyAtWorkBlog related to suicides of people in the workers’ compensation system. It seems sensible to perhaps provide restorative justice options to those injured worker who have been mismanaged by insurance companies.
In some ways, the ombudsman system, various commissions, and even the coronial system, already provide forms of restoration to mistreated citizens but restorative justice seems to be the unifying concept for injured and ill people, and those with “secondary illness” such as family, who need to regain some dignity and respect for themselves and their loved ones.
Bottomley is quoted as saying
”Part of the restoration may be the reputation of the person who died, so they are not remembered only in terms of a traumatic death but what they achieved in their life…”
Bottomley and his team need as much support as can be given to provide a framework that prevents the type of grief that the McGregor’s continue to face.
Government awareness and further reading
The Victorian Government is aware of the Melbourne restorative project. The Federal Government is also aware of the concept as it appears in many of the submissions to Government on a range of issue. The recent Productivity Commission report referenced a leading expert on the concept, John Braithwaite. Braithwaite’s work has been clearly referenced by Professor Ron McCallum in several reports and submissions he has produced with Belinda Reeve.
Although the Wikipedia entry on restorative justice is linked to in the above article a much better coverage of the issue is available through a literature review of the issue which was a companion publication to the consultative report mentioned above. The review should be obligatory reading for safety professionals, and HR professional at the least.
UPDATE: 11 March 2010
WorkSafe Victoria was mentioned several times in The Age article mentioned above. I asked WorkSafe for some comments on the article and the issues raised. Their response is below:
“Changes: The ‘new’ act in 2004 included psychological health as a discreet matter which was significant in helping to deal with bullying. These investigations are difficult because of the range of issues – legitimate management behaviour vs intimidation and harassment, one persons word against another, personality clashes, outright intimidation, fear and preparedness of witnesses to come forward and give admissible evidence. Nonetheless workplace bullying is a major community issue which was why WorkSafe developed anti-bullying guidance in 2003 and has run several prosecutions since, most notably the recent one involving Cafe Vamp, its director and three workers. A month after that case, we’re still getting around 30 phone calls a day about bullying.
Restorative justice: WorkSafe supports the concept of restorative justice, where appropriate, and the wider use of victim impact statements as recently announced by the Attorney General. VISs can be an important part of the prosecution though in many cases injured people or their families choose not to make them.”