Workplace bullying hits the national agenda in Australia

On Saturday morning, May 26 2012, the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and her Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten, announced an inquiry into workplace bullying to be undertaken by the House Standing Committee on Education and Employment and to report to Parliament in November 2012.

This announcement seems to be another that is buried or overtaken by current political events.   The Australian Broadcasting Corporation mentioned workplace bullying as a “silent epidemic”.  There is a strong risk that the politicians are overstating the workplace bullying case.  WorkSafe Victoria receives thousands of enquiries about workplace bullying but only a portion of them fit the workplace bullying definition and only a handful proceed to a prosecution.  The government needs to be careful that it is not operating to a perception of workplace bullying instead of the reality, even though the community outrage is genuinely felt.

The Age newspaper and AAP, basically printed an edited media release but the most significant statements have not been printed.  These are the comments by the Prime Minister, Minister Shorten and the parents of Brodie Panlock, Damian and Rae.  Below is a selection or statements from the doorstop transcript:

PM : “I’ve have had the opportunity to have a conversation with Damian and with Rae about their family experience and they will talk about that family experience themselves, but it led to the loss of their daughter Brodie. And they fought hard here in Victoria for Brodie’s law, to have a law that deals with serious bullying at work.

We, today, are here to announce a parliamentary inquiry into bullying around the nation. We are already taking some action, particularly through our new workplace health and safety laws and the development of a code of conduct by Safe Work Australia.

But I am concerned more needs to be done and if we have a national parliamentary inquiry, it will enable people to come forward, tell their stories, help us work out the prevalence of bullying in work places and also help us add to what we are doing now.

And one way we could add to what we are doing now is to take Brodie’s law nationally and to have common national laws to deal with bullying at work.”

The reminder of the Work Health and Safety laws is welcome but it remains unlikely that issues of mental health in the workplace, such as bullying, will change at all based on the laws.  The code of “conduct” Gillard refers to is probably the draft Code of Practice that is having a difficult review passage.  It is also focusing on too narrow a mental health issue and needs to  be a true look at the packet of mental health challenges faced by workers and Australian business.  Fatigue is of particular concern and one that may have an unfortunate legacy given the new work practices of fly-in fly-out labour.

Minister Shorten: “This is a dreadful experience for any family. Bullying is a secret scourge; it is far too common in all Australian work places. There is no excuse for bullying. Having a parliamentary inquiry, where the voices of people who have been bullied can be heard, where families can explain what they’ve been through, I think puts a very human touch on what is a national problem.

The experts say it costs between $6 billion in the work place, to up to $36 billion, according to some experts. The Commonwealth Government is moving to have national safety laws, but we believe that workplace bullying, even if it can’t always be seen, is as big a scourge as anything else which is hurting our people at work, in particular our young people.”

Bill Shorten seems to be suggesting something akin to a Truth Commission where victims and the aggrieved can provide their side of the story.  Indeed, if large-scale cultural change is required in Australian workplaces (and it is) the inquiry announced may have great potential.

Rae Panlock describes workplaces as toxic:

“It is a really toxic environment, that bullying creates, and it does have a serious effect on people’s state of mental health and it would be nice to know we can all go to work, young or old, and feel safe and that it will be taken seriously.”

But she understands that the motives for her daughter’s suicide are many and sees workplace bullying as an element of  “people’s state of mental health”.

Damian Panlock touched on the importance of achieving harmonisation of OHS laws across Australia:

“I think uniformity, I think throughout all the States, and that’s where Julia Gillard comes into it and Bill Shorten, that they will change the attitude and what the laws are going to be and looking at bullying, particularly in the workplace with young adults that are trying to get on with what they are trying to do, trainees, apprentices, whatever…..

Across Australia, it’s got to be done. All the same. Each State. Not just one or two States.”

It is becoming increasingly obvious that not only is it important to know the terms of reference of any inquiry but also to have some familiarity with the inquiry committee members.  In the Workplace Bullying case, the terms are below:

  • “the prevalence of workplace bullying in Australia and the experience of victims of workplace bullying;
  • the role of workplace cultures in preventing and responding to bullying and the capacity for workplace-based policies and procedures to influence the incidence and seriousness of workplace bullying;
  • the adequacy of existing education and support services to prevent and respond to workplace bullying and whether there are further opportunities to raise awareness of workplace bullying such as community forums;
  • whether the scope to improve coordination between governments, regulators, health service providers and other stakeholders to address and prevent workplace bullying;
  • whether there are regulatory, administrative or cross-jurisdictional and international legal and policy gaps that should be addressed in the interests of enhancing protection against and providing an early response to workplace bullying, including through appropriate complaint mechanisms;
  • whether the existing regulatory frameworks provide a sufficient deterrent against workplace bullying;
  • the most appropriate ways of ensuring bullying culture or behaviours are not transferred from one workplace to another; and
  • possible improvements to the national evidence base on workplace bullying.”

These terms seem reasonable but the biggest risk is that the workplace bullying focus is diluted by school bullying issues.  There is an assumption that school bullying behaviours are carried over to the workplace  and that workplace bullying could be reduced by increased attention at the school.  This assumption needs to be addressed early in the inquiry as the submissions to the inquiry and the media coverage could become severely skewed away from the original intention.

Ms Amanda Rishworth MP (Chair) Australian Labor Party, Kingston, SA
Mr Rowan Ramsey MP (Deputy Chair) Liberal Party of Australia, Grey, SA
Mrs Karen Andrews MP Liberal Party of Australia, McPherson, QLD
Mrs Yvette D’Ath MP Australian Labor Party, Petrie, QLD
Ms Deborah O’Neill MP Australian Labor Party, Robertson, NSW
Mr Mike Symon MP Australian Labor Party, Deakin, VIC
Mr Alan Tudge MP Liberal Party of Australia, Aston, VIC

The table above allows readers to look at those politicians who will be hearing and reading submissions but any enquiries should be directed to the House Standing Committee once the inquiry is formally established.

This inquiry will be one to watch for the following reasons

  • The inquiry is focusing on what is clearly a workplace hazard;
  • There is scope for bullying to be considered in the larger context of mental health and psychosocial hazards;
  • The inquiry is being conducted during the production of a controversial national code of practice on workplace bullying;
  • The politics of harmonisation still have a way to go with Victoria being the holdout (curiously Victoria was the first State to publish guidance on workplace bullying); and
  • There is the potential to unite, or at least begin to blend, the OHS and Human Resources approach to this issue.

Kevin Jones

5 thoughts on “Workplace bullying hits the national agenda in Australia”

  1. Bullying can cause serious damage to a person’s health and well-being. Employees should be provided an avenue for them to report instances of bullying and have it investigated without putting employees at even more vulnerable place.

  2. Many of us in the workplace have been aware of events that were uncomfortable to say the least but unsure if this constituted bullying by workcover standards .Workcover could easily develop a poster for firms to display on what is and isnt bullying and require awareness as part of ohs training for all employees as part of inductions ,Ive read the guidance note from workcover online ,not good enough needs to be at least on an ohs board and part of inductions and also multi-lingual and on the companys policies and procedures poster.
    Also the investigation of a bullying complaint should be done as like an investigation of a workplace injury ,the definition of assault inVictoria is not that you have been actually touched but the fear that you were going to be , this is not rocket science .

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