Bullying, duty of care and compensation

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The growth of attention to psychosocial hazards in Australia received a considerable boost from a stress survey undertaken by the ACTU some years ago.  During the survey of union-members, it became clear that bullying was a major generator and perpetrator of workplace stress.  The unions went to town on this data and set the agenda for some time in OHS.  Their success was echoed and mirrored in the United Kingdom and Europe. (In fact, Europe seems to be the jurisdiction that has kept the momentum)

The survey and campaign got the attention of regulators and OHS professionals to the presence of, perhaps, the next generation of occupational health and safety activity.

Since that time psychosocial hazards have splintered into sub-groups of stress, occupational violence, workload, fatigue management, shift work, dignity at work and a range of other matters. However bullying persists as the front runner.

As with many elements of OHS, risk management and cultural studies the defence forces provide signposts to future civilian issues. Yesterday the Australian Defence Force agreed to pay ex-gratia payments to family members of defence personnel who had committed suicide as a result of bullying suffered at the hands of their colleagues.  There are many significant signposts from these incidents but one of particular note was that the payments were not made to dependents but to other family members.

According to the ABC radio report by Karen Barlow:

“The suicides date back up to 12 years, when Lance-Corporal Nicholas Shiels killed himself after accidentally shooting his best friend dead during Army training.

Private John Satatas hanged himself at Holsworthy Barracks, in western Sydney, five years ago after being bullied and racially taunted.

Private David Hayward committed suicide four years ago after he was injured and had gone AWOL.” 

The Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, was interviewed on this issue, and others, on Radio National on 23 October 2008 and  has referred the matter to a general review of the defence forces. Fitzgibbon acknowledged that “shortcomings in the defence force system” contributed to the situation and could have been better handled after the event.

The day before the media attention the Australian Defence Force released the findings of its annual attitudinal survey of personnel.  The 2007 survey found, according to a media statement:

“… a marked improvement in knowledge of mental health issues as well as members’ assessments of their own mental health. Since 1999, the data also shows an increasing proportion of personnel who believe that unacceptable behaviour is well managed.”

As Australia moves to a national OHS and workers compensation system, or at least a harmonised system, more attention should be given to some of the responses and OHS initiatives in Commonwealth departments as these will be just as influential on OHS law and management as any State initiative.

When managing stress, are safety managers looking at the wrong thing?

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Today is World Mental Health Day and the media, at least in Australia, is inundated with comments and articles on mental health.  This morning, Jeff Kennett, a director of beyondblue, spoke on ABC Radio about the increasing levels of anxiety that people are feeling in these turbulent economic times.  Throughout the 5 minute interview, Kennett never once mentioned stress.  This omission seemed odd as, in the workplace safety field, stress is often seen as the biggest psychosocial hazard faced in the workplace.

SafetyAtWorkBlog spoke with Clare Shann, the senior project manager with beyondblue’s Workplace Program, about the role of stress in the workplace and its relation to mental health.  She clarified that stress is not a medical condition but a potential contributor to developing a mental illness, such as anxiety disorders or depression.

To put the situation into context, there is a fascinating interview with a Darren Dorey of Warrnambool in Victoria.  The 20 minute interview was conducted on  a regional ABC Radio station on 9 October, and describes the personal experience of depression and anxiety that stems, to some extent, from work.

It seems that in trying to manage stress, OHS professionals may be focusing on the wrong element in worker health.  Perhaps what are considered workers compensation claims for stress should be re–categorised as claims for mental illness.  This may result in a better acceptance of the existence of this workplace hazard.

An exclusive interview with Clare Shann can be heard clare_shann_mental_health