Prevention of harm is lost in the debate over workplace bullying

This week in Australia the conservative Liberal Party released its much-anticipated industrial relations policy.  Most commentary is that the policy is thin but in terms of occupational health and safety, the Liberal Party is supportive of the changes made concerning workplace bullying.  Sadly, the commentary is often lazy.

VWA+0518+28x5+Bullying+A3+PosterMedia Misunderstanding

One example of a careless  headline is in the Herald Sun newspaper for 11 May 2013, “$20 million Budget boost to stop workplace bullying“.  The Australian Government’s changes to the Fair Work Act do not prevent bullying, it only provides further options for remedy.  OHS is principally about preventing harm and the Fair Work Act changes do not help in this aim.

Also the article states

“Bullying costs the economy $36 billion a year in lost productivity.”

This is technically correct but removed from the context of the original (2000) research, a context discussed in an earlier SafetyAtWorkBlog article. Also the original cost estimates did not specify that the costs related only to productivity.

Liberal Party Policy

But to the Liberal Party IR policy.  The section on workplace bullying states:

“The Coalition believes that bullying is unacceptable in any workplace. It is a risk to health and safety and can have very serious, life-long consequences.

Although bullying is an occupational health and safety matter, Labor has promised to amend the Fair Work laws to include bullying. The Coalition will support Labor’s proposed changes to address workplace bullying but only if it is clear that a worker has first sought help and impartial advice from an independent regulatory agency, and further, the changes are expanded to include the conduct of union officials towards workers and employers.” (page 8)

The party needed to start with a moral stance and does so but should be reminded that the Australian Parliament is also a workplace and much of the conduct of parliamentarians from all political parties on the floor of Parliament could fit the most recent definition of workplace bullying – “Repeated unreasonable behaviour directed toward a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety”.  The Liberal Party may be focusing on heavy-handed union officials but a little self-analysis on bullying would be prudent.

The statement acknowledges  that the Liberal Party sees workplace bullying as an OHS issue with real risks to health and safety.  This is significant because often the reality of workplace bullying has been scoffed at.

The Liberal’s conditional support for the Fair Work Act changes requires a worker to seek “impartial advice from an independent regulatory agency”.  The intention seems to be that such agencies are those already operating in States and territories but the Federal Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten, has agreed that these are under-resourced to deal with workplace bullying.  The Herald Sun article mentioned above anticipates additional funding in next week’s Federal Budget but, if the rumour is correct, it is the Fair Work Commission and not State OHS regulators that will get the money.

In effect, the Liberal Party is agreeing with the Australia Labor Government.  Bipartisanship is almost always a positive but the original changes proposed by the government remain a post-incident action.  People will continue to be psychological harmed by workplace bullies under these new arrangements, now supported by the Liberal Party.  State OHS regulators will continue to be under skilled and under-resourced to assess and assist with workplace bullying reports.

As Steve Bell, a senior associate  with Herbert Smith Freehills, said at a breakfast seminar recently, the Fair Work Act changes establish another “avenue for remedy” on workplace bullying.  Bell said that some legislative changes, particularly those relating to “reasonable management action”, are likely to create a future legal “battleground” in workplace bullying cases.  It is unlikely that such a legal battle will help with the psychological rehabilitation of of the bullied worker.

The focus on post-incident remedy was not the main intention of the government when it established the Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying.  The terms of reference for that inquiry gave equal weight to prevention and:

  • “…procedures to influence the incidence and seriousness of workplace bullying”;
  • “…improve coordination … to address and prevent workplace bullying”;
  • “…enhancing protection against and providing an early response to workplace bullying;” and
  • “..a sufficient deterrent against workplace bullying”.

But the prevention of harm seems to have been lost in the political debate from all major political parties in Australia.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

4 thoughts on “Prevention of harm is lost in the debate over workplace bullying”

  1. Hi Kevin, thanks for bringing attention to workplace bullying. While it does get coverage – it is clearly not enough if there is a $36 billion a year loss in productivity.

  2. Thank you for writing this piece. I think that you have brought up some valuable points, particularly about the prevention of workplace conflict. It does make me wonder with the emphasis on post-incident remedies, whether this may have the unintended consequence of fuelling conflict by creating the \’battleground\” that Bell referred to.

  3. The problem with workplace bullying is that for some organisations, the hazard/risk factors identified in the draft Code of Practice for the Prevention of Bullying are not addressed as part of the risk assessment. Discussions about these hazard/risk factors lie in the area of sacred cows, dead cats and other taboos, and the mere mention of these factors can result in exclusion for the person/s who dared to raise them.

    It also seems that the focus in some organisations is reactionary as prevention is seen as too expensive or too hard. There is also an issue in my view when front line support personnel who could provide advice on the prevention, detection and resolution of bullying are removed.

    In my view, if workplaces are not going to develop and implement meaningful controls to address the hazard/risk factors, then there is a probability that bullying incidents and allegations will continue to occur.

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