Workplace bullying and restorative justice – how to help the families left behind

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.

In February 2010, Professor Richard Johnstone and Christine Parker published a working paper on enforceable undertakings in OHS law which makes extensive reference to restorative justice.

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.

Kevin Jones

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.”

reservoir, victoria, australia

6 thoughts on “Workplace bullying and restorative justice – how to help the families left behind”

  1. To anonymous….
    I agree that the amount of workers compensation after the event or the amount a fine brings into the coffers is not important compared to the long term effects on a worker who has been bullied. As as you stated the effects are felt by the individual, the family, extended family, friends and the wider community.
    It will take a complete change of attitude from all workers, not just the administration or the actual bully, to change our workplaces, making them a safe place to work. It is not acceptable to feel intimidated at work nor is it acceptable to stand by and witness this happening to someone else.
    My plea to all workplaces is to treat others with the respect you would like to be shown to you.

  2. I\’m not especially qualifiedto make any comment in regards to laws which may or may not be introduced to the workplace but I did want to share a perspective from someone who was personally affected by this case. I currently work in insurance and deal with liability in my line of work day to day. But I also grew up in White Hills and knew both Angela and Stuart and I have to say that liability lawsuits aside, the most important reason to keep issues like this on the table and work to improve conditions and eradicate bullying from the workplace is that no amount of compensation can ever make up for the tragedy of the lives that are lost like Stuart and Angela\’s were. The loss of promise and the grief that will never leave… I have suffered for years with the painful emmories and regrets that these events caused. These costs are greater than you can put a figure on. We need a whole culture shift and if that starts in the workplace then so be it, WorkCover will have ignited a large-scale change for the better.

  3. Hi Kevin, This is a good read, however, the industry of report writing around the subject of work place injury is certainly alive and well and we all continue to contribute and you will have noted in my past comments a propensity to cut to the chase.

    I shall not disappoint this time. There is a great need for research and understanding but when the results of research do not deliver anything tangible for injured workers at the coal face relating to the management and care of injured workers then we have to ask the serious question, who is listening ???? It would seem to me that legislators have not got a real understanding of the legislation and the ramifications of said legislation and regulation in action on a day to day basis. The bureaucratic management of the statutory authority and the profit driven priority of the authority\’s agent does nothing to advance the injured workers situation at all.

    We seem to somehow mix injury prevention with the management, compensation and rehabilitation of injured workers, these matters are mutually exclusive and injury prevention should not be the province of the compensation statutory authority or the insurer apart from advising employers that their premiums will take a major hit if they don\’t look after their workforce. (Workers also need to do their bit in the safety stakes too)

    The prevention of injury in the work place is the domain of the authority charged with the administration of the appropriate act and should be resourced to undertake its duties to bring to effect the desired outcome of fewer injuries. If there are continuing high levels of injury and worse, certain types of injury, then the magnifying glass of an entirely independent auditor not vetted by any politician or bureaucrat, should be presented for all to see via Hansard then the public media.

    Getting back to the matter of \”bullying in the workplace\” it is no different to any other injury, the cause is the problem and the penalties must be applied at the work place. Fix that and you start to fix the problem. Management of the injury in a caring and efficient manner that is not confrontational unless absolutely necessary for the the minute number of recalcitrant injured workers. If you want to get people to cooperate and be enthused about recovery and return to work then stop treating them the way they are being treated currently.

    If you wish to prevent injury then you need to concentrate on the provision of a physically safe work place first and foremost then you can incorporate education of the workforce hand in hand with supervision of the work force and I do not mean lip service and the only way that can happen is if workplace random inspections by hard nosed well trained inspectors with substantial on the spot fine issuing capacities are in place. Old adage 1gram of prevention prevents 1 tonne of cure. Therein lays the answer to reducing the cost of workers compensation.

    Sorry for the ramble, but the obvious does not seem to be obvious to the people that are making the decisions.

    1. Tony

      By and large I agree. Many of your comments are spot-on in relating to workplace safety but the OHS laws are no longer limited to workplaces but focus on \”work\”. The title of the model national OHS law – Work Health and Safety Act – was specifically chosen so that the focus was on the work undertaken and not the workplace in which the task occurs. This is a big change in mindset for many of the safety professionals and a challenge to the core focus of some of the safety professions. The recent SafetyAtWorkBlog posts about Michael Tooma and the comments by Graeme Dent illustrate this confusion in the legal fraternity. –

      On the matter of psychosocial hazards, such as workplace bullying, control may not only be possible from within the workplace and so other social resources and cultural techniques may need to be applied. It seems accepted by most now that workplace culture overlaps, affects and reflects non-workplace culture, and vice versa. Safety advertising by WorkSafe Victoria over the last couple of years may support this.

      WorkSafe has had considerable local and national success with its \”Homecomings\” ads. Almost all of these ads show the social and family impacts of workplace activity. It is not addressing the worker or workplace issues, the campaign is designed to place family pressure on the worker to work safely. In some ads, guilt is applied as a safety motivator to the audience – the ad around the school play. WorkSafe is addressing workplace hazards by not talking about workplace hazards. [The graphic young worker ads are different for a different demographic]

      This is not a new approach for WorkSafe. In the 1990s it campaigned hard on farm safety by focusing on farmer\’s wives (as they predominantly were in those days) and children. WorkSafe even ran seminars through the Country Women\’s Association. This approach acknowledged a lost battle with the rugged, independent, resourceful male farmer and worked on one of the few people who could influence a farmer\’s actions and often the only other person on the farm whose world would change forever with the death of the farmer.

      Longterm change in the safety culture of workplaces will come most effectively from a changing in safety attitudes (norms, values and all that psych/sociology stuff) in the wider community, and this is what WorkSafe has been attempting for at least 5 years with Homecomings.

    2. Tony

      On another issue you raise – workplace safety must be seen as a continuum of prevention through to rehabilitation and return-to-work for those in the safety profession and the workplace. However, the continuum is comprised of multiple sectors based, largely, on historical structures – the preventers, the fixers and the repairers. Each of these have clearly delineated safety tasks but the common element is the worker, safe or injured. The worker is the link throughout the safety continuum and must forever be the focus of the safety management process. When the worker is forgotten or the management looks to other principal criteria, the safety and welfare of the worker will suffer. Ultimately society suffers because we are not looking after our vulnerable citizens who should never have been made vulnerable in the first place.

      Safety professionals, business owners and government must be able to view the big picture of workplace safety every so often to remind them of their social obligation to the workforce.

      The cost of workers\’ compensation can indeed be reduced through an emphasis on prevention but, I believe, there are more influential interests in compensation than there are in injury prevention. I think the impending harmonisation of workers\’ compensation has the potential to reveal this institutional imbalance. It will not be possible to reduce the influence of the compensation interest so it is necessary to up the resources and prominence of prevention. Government departments that compensate AND prevent always struggle with competing priorities. Splitting the roles into separate departments or authorities may simply increase conflict which is unlikely to serve the interests of the workers.

      It should be possible to look after the small issues as well as the big structural ones. An impediment in Australia, or maybe it\’s a void, is the lack of any safety professional associations with any political clout. If there is no loud voice, government will not hear.

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