Australia’s workplace bullying report is a missed mental health opportunity

Cover of Workplace Bullying Final ReportThe report, issued last week, from Australia’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying, is a terrific discussion on workplace bullying but is a major missed opportunity to achieve necessary change, and change in this area equates to the reduction of, principally, psychological harm to workers and their families.

The report starts off shakily by giving prominence to a statement that is clearly wrong. Page 1 of the report quotes Carlo Caponecchia and Anne Wyatt, saying:

“Bullying is the key workplace health and safety issue of our time.”

Caponecchia and Wyatt may believe that, but to open a Parliamentary report with this quote shows poor judgement from the Committee by giving workplace bullying prominence over other workplace health and safety (WHS) hazards and issues. Workplace bullying may indeed be the most difficult workplace health and safety challenge but that is very different from what the quote says.

Mental Health and Workforce Participation

And it is not only in comparison to the whole range of WHS issues that the quote above is odd. Prior to the bullying inquiry, the same House of Representatives Standing Committee (on Education and Employment) produced a report on mental health and workforce participation. It was reasonable to expect that the bullying report would build on he mental health knowledge of the committee members. The mental health report mentions workplace bullying on page 31 with

“…Comcare’s anti-bullying campaign targeting workplaces, ‘Work Safety Campaign – Don’t be a silent witness’, designed to be a tool for improving the psychological health of employees in workplaces.”

It also mentions the Government’s “Fourth National Mental Health Plan. Priority area 1: Social Inclusion and Recovery” that includes as one of its aims

“To work with schools, workplaces and communities to deliver programs to improve mental health literacy and enhance resilience.” (emphasis added, page 32)

The Committee understood the need for a national, multidisciplinary approach to mental health in one report yet seems reluctant to include workplace bullying preventative strategies under a national mental health strategy. This Committee has effectively been exposed to the issue of how to manage a worker with a mental health issue and how to manage a workplace that creates a mental health issue in a worker. It would have been wonderful if the Committee had been able to link the two reports more thematically and make more effective recommendations on workplace bullying.

Psychosocial Risks and Mental Health

The committee acknowledges the relevance of mental health in later chapters but prefers to use the terminology of “psychosocial risks” in Chapter 1. “Mental health” is not mentioned in any of the workplace bullying report recommendations. It is difficult to see how one can exist without the other.

If one considers psychosocial risks as a reasonable synonym for workplace mental health, the workplace bullying report takes on a different complexion. Recommendation 15 calls for

“…a voluntary national accreditation system to recognise and award employers who achieve best practice and meet defined standards of psychosocial health and safety”.

Couldn’t this be achieved as part of a national mental health strategy? Hang on Australia has had one since, at least, November 2009. This is discussed further below.

The blending of workplace mental health and the psychosocial risks from workplace bullying is a reasonable action given that most of Australia is covered by Work Health and Safety laws that remove the demarcation between social and occupational impacts. The latter chapters of the report discuss the broader mental health impacts on work and in the community.

Mr Neale Buchanan, Director of Operations at Workplace Standards Tasmania, is quoted in the context of the new WHS laws and increased attention to due diligence:

“I think there is a really strong potential here to focus not so much on the traditional physical health and safety issues but that due diligence framework should extend to these areas of mental health and wellbeing.” (page 38)

The report states, on page 68 and based on evidence by Caponecchia & Wyatt, in relation to systems of work:

“Bullying at work should be seen as a systemic issue. The system of work (or working environment) directly impacts on the prevalence of bullying, as it is these systems that create hazards to worker’s mental health.”

Recommendation 16 suggests the Government “specifically recognise good practice in workplace psychosocial health and safety” through an awards process and 18 sets up an annual report card on psychosocial issues and workplace bullying.

The report includes no recommendation for linking any preventative actions on workplace bullying to a national mental health strategy or the broader mental health context. On psychosocial health and safety, what we are equating to workplace mental health, the parliamentary committee recommends

  • An accreditation scheme to pat employers on the back for meeting best practice;
  • An award that pats employers on the back for achieving good practice; and
  • Safe Work Australia is charged with issuing “an annual national statement which updates any emerging trends of its collated data”.

It is difficult to see Australia leading the way on workplace mental health with these.

National Mental Health Strategy

Cover of National Mental Helath plan09v2The Government’s 2009-2014 National Mental Health Plan mentions the role of workplaces in tackling mental health issues several times but there is no evidence of any work being undertaken in anything other than for specifically targeted industry sectors.

It identified a priority action as:

“Work with schools, workplaces and communities to deliver programs to improve mental health literacy and enhance resilience.” (emphasis added, page v)

Page 34 states that

“Workplaces are also important settings for building resilience and fostering coping strategies.”

The National Mental Health Plan makes many other recommendations about workplace mental health and culture but almost always in the context of the health sector’s workforce and the need for adequate skills and resources to address mental health issues. Rarely, if at all does the plan intrude of the broader mix of Australian workplaces.

This strategy could be used to provide impetus to interventions on workplace bullying, particularly through resilience and coping, although both these areas address individual needs rather than the organisational change required for sustainable cultural value shifts.

The plan discusses partnerships but partnerships outside of the health policy sector are hardly covered. This leaves effective action on workplace mental health in the hands of the Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten. Shorten has shown sufficient foresight and gumption on workplace bullying to take action to better define and understand the issue but what is required now is a sustainable strategy to reduce psychological harm resulting from the bullying. The task is not beyond him but the upcoming Christmas break steals the issue of impetus.

Such a workplace mental health and bullying strategy needs to be advanced before the next high-profile bullying-related death or suicide changes the political landscape again.

Kevin Jones

More information on mental health is available by using the search field on the top right of this page.

reservoir, victoria, australia

One thought on “Australia’s workplace bullying report is a missed mental health opportunity”

  1. Thank you Kevin. I work in mental health and it very clear that a lot of the knowledge we work with on a daily basis would be of tremendous benefit to companies, other organisations and the people who work in them!

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