Workplace bullying is a hazard that must be recognized, addressed and punished, but above all prevented. “Brodie’s Law” was always going to be a part of this challenge but never the solution.
Today’s Age newspaper bemoans the fact that “Brodie’s Law” has not been applied since its introduction 12 months ago. This is not surprising and the article provides some clues to why.
The application of this law seems now to be mainly intended for the Victorian Police force and, as with any police force, there are a great many items on their agenda of which workplace bullying is only one.
Policing and harm prevention
It can also be asked why the Victorian Police force is policing a workplace issue? Workplace safety is principally the responsibility of the employer or, in the new language, person conducting a business or undertaking. The bullies and employer involved in the bullying of Brodie Panlock were prosecuted under occupational health and safety law, not the Crimes Act.
Brodie’s Law was a change to the Crimes Act causing the application of the anti-bullying law to come under the auspices of the police. But is any police force an agent of harm prevention? Police actions are fundamentally reactive, post-incident and post-harm. It is argued that action at this stage has a preventive effect but that effect is secondary to punishment and containment.
The lack of action is not surprising as “Brodie’s Law”, as mentioned in The Sunday Age article, was a change to laws about stalking and not specifically workplace bullying. The hyperbolic reporting around the introduction of “Brodie’s Law” has compounded the confusion about who to turn to when bullying occurs. The example mentioned by Mr Panlock in the newspaper article shows that the police are just as confused.
Worksafe Victoria has indicated in the past that, although the psychological impacts of bullying are real to the victim, many interpersonal conflicts and misunderstandings have been lumped under workplace bullying. I would argue that this has inflated the prevalence of workplace bullying in the minds of the public.
The upcoming federal inquiry into workplace bullying may prove to be enlightening but could also be very disappointing for those seeking verification of the widespread cultural stain of workplace bullying. (I look forward to WorkSafe Victoria’s submission)
Bullying as a mental health issues
Workplace bullying is real and needs addressing but workplace bullying is a subset of mental health issues, and one that illustrates the modern, blurred, distinction between workplace and non-workplace. Psychosocial hazards, such as workplace bullying, stress, fatigue and absenteeism, cannot only be controlled through workplace interventions as the causes or contributory factors are not contained in the workplace.
Brodie Panlock’s suicide as a result of workplace bullying and the lack of support and understanding by her work colleagues was an indication of the complexity of workplace bullying. It was a case that generated outrage at the participants in the bullying and outrage at the slow response from WorkSafe Victoria, but, as often occurs, the outrage was narrowly focussed and has had the effect of restricting the debate to the perceived cause of the outrage, the bullying.
The need for a coordinated prevention strategy
A greater level of sustainable change would occur from advocating for a greater recognition of mental health issues as they occur in, and affect, the workplace. Currently there are many people advocating for change in important social areas but the lack of coordination has resulted in the community being confused and for some advocates, unwittingly, “sucking the oxygen” from other similar psychosocial campaigns. Imagine what level of change could be achieved if all of the outrage was coordinated into a strategic campaign on reducing psychosocial harm.
This optimistic aim is unlikely to occur for years, if at all. The aim is not helped by the Federal Government’s inquiry into workplace bullying. The inquiry is unlikely to generate great change on the issue due to the limitations of its terms of reference. This leaves it up to those choosing to make submissions to the inquiry to place, on the record, the need for change beyond workplace bullying in order to combat it. Researchers into mental health issues beyond workplace bullying need to detail the failures of their interventions so that workplace bullying strategies do not succumb to the same traps. They must also detail any successes so that, if applicable to bullying, interventions can be streamlined.
Brodie’s parents are achieving some change on the issue of workplace bullying but it seems that most of it is in keeping the issue in the public and media consciousness, their efforts remain in the awareness-raising stage. A coordinated harm prevention strategy is required to truly affect change in workplace mental health issues. This strategy will remain unrealised as long as government continues to compartmentalise its inquiries into narrow structures based on existing jurisdictions, funding, tenuous definitions and by treating the workplace as a special case, a life stage that is radically different from the other hours of the day.
Australia’s new Work Health and Safety laws have removed work from the workplace and therefore also released hazards from the workplace into a broader social context. Advocates of workplace change must re-evaluate their strategies to this new definition in order to be both relevant and effective.
If the government will not adopt this strategy, we will need to make the case for this change and the most effective way, at the moment, is through the Federal Government’s Inquiry into Workplace Bullying.