Workplace bullying possibly increasing

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A United States report draws a parallel between increasingly difficult economic situations and an increase in workplace bullying.   This video report is lightweight but is a recent airing of the issue with a different approach.

The angle taken in the story is that of a “pink elephant” that women are just as likely to bully their workmates as men are.  Some of the speakers in the video try to relate female bullying to issues of female empowerment but bullying is more often a reflection of personal nastiness than a social movement.

Bullying received increased focus when workplace culture emerged but rather than a gender issue, our increasing intolerance for bullying is coming from a broader cultural movement than just through the workplace.

The video report originated through research undertaken by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an organisation that has existed for sometime and has very recently upgraded its website.

Kevin Jones

Mental Illness and Workplace Safety

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Reports in the Australian media this week indicated that “nearly half the population has a common mental health problem at some point during their lives”.  Safety professionals and HR practitioners should take note of these statistics and hope that it does not manifest in their shift, even though it is likely.

The difficulty with trying to manage or anticipate mental health issues is that they seem to have evolved over time and multiplied.  There is the common phrase of “trying to herd cats” and it seems that mental health issues are the cats.  One could apply lateral thinking and propose the solution is to get a dog but will the dog herd a cat that doesn’t look like a cat, smell like a cat, or worst scenario of all, a cat that resembles a dog!

Because of the fluctuating psychiatric states of everyone everyday how does one recognise when a mood swing becomes a mental health issue.  Does one take everything as a mental health issue and waste time on frivolous matters?  Or is there no such thing as a frivolous matter?

In the one article there are these confusing and inconsistent terms for mental health:

  • “common mental health problem”
  • “mental condition”
  • “non psychotic psychiatric problems”
  • “mood disorder”
  • “anxiety disorder”
  • “mental health disorder”
  • “substance abuse or dependency”
  • “mental disorder”
  • “mental illness”
  • “psychiatric condition”

In this report it is unlikely that the synonyms have been generated by the journalist as the data quoted is from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, but it indicates the confusion that safety professionals can feel when they need to accommodate more recent workplace hazards – the psychosocial hazards.

The list above does not include the “established” hazards of bullying, occupational violence or stress.  The fact that there may be a clear differentiation between mental health symptoms and mental disorders but that needs to be clearly communicated to those who manage workplaces so that control resources can be allocated where best needed.

The article referred to above provides interesting statistics and there are gems of useful information in the ABS report but the article provides me with no clues about how to begin a coordinated program to address the mental health issues in the workplace.  It is an article without hope, without clues, without pathways on which the professional can act.

There is no doubt the psychosocial hazards at work are real but the advocates of intervention need to clarify the message.

Kevin Jones

(This blog posting does not discuss the recent changes to compensation for defence personnel and soldiers for mental health from combat, but mental health in that “industry” is a fascinating comparison to what occurs in the private sector.)

Sex trafficking and brothels

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Every employee has the right to a safe and healthy work environment.  It was this statement and belief that pushed me to providing OHS advice to the legal brothel industry in Victoria.  The industry is frowned upon by most but used by many, and yet the OHS support for the industry is far less than that provided for many other legal businesses.

Over the years sex trafficking, or slavery, has gained a lot of attention, more so, in my opinion, than other examples of illegal migration and worker  exploitation.  Articles in The Age newspaper today report on approaches to brothel owners and managers from people who have women for sale.  Regardless of the industry in which this occurs, this practice is abhorrent and the full weight of the law should be focused on these slave traders.

But a point that is getting lost in the wilderness is that not all women working in brothels are illegal.  Almost all choose to work there for the same reasons anyone works anywhere.  Many academics, and Australia has some of the most rabid, see all sex work as exploitation, as slavery and degrading to women.

The question for safety professionals and advocates is whether the nature of the work discounts the workers’, and employers’, access to legitimate safety advice?  Can the moral switch be flicked off, even for a short time, in order to provide workers in this industry with the same level of occupational health and safety as any other worker can rightfully demand?  Does the switch need turning off?

The statement at the start of this blog, that is reflected in OHS legislation around the world, is not selective, it applies to all.

The legal brothel industry has a long way to go in achieving the levels of OHS compliance that other small businesses have already gained.  The established hazards of manual handling, ergonomics, noise, etc are largely dealt with but consider those issues that have entered the occupational area over the last decade or so.  

Ask yourselves how would the owner of a legal brothel, a business where (predominantly) women have sex with multiple partners over their shift, deal with these contemporary hazards:

  • Stress
  • Bullying
  • Fatigue
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Security

And then ask yourselves how the OHS profession and discipline would deal with these workplace issues?

  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Sprains and strains
  • Hygiene
  • Personal protective equipment
  • Working in isolation

I judge the success of safety management systems in companies by the level of knowledge the most isolated worker has about safety in that workplace.   I ask the teleworkers, the night-shift workers, the security guards, the cleaners, the maintenance staff…  These employees, if a safety management system is working properly, should have the same level of safety knowledge, and the same level of access to OHS support, as those workers on day shift in a  head office.

I also judge the safety profession and the regulators on the success of their safety initiatives, the level of their safety commitment, by looking at how OHS is accepted and implemented at those industries on the fringes of society, like the brothel industry.  If the workers in these industries and the owners of these businesses are treated differently because of the nature of the work, we need to reassess our commitment to safety and the professional vows many of us took to ensure everyone has a safe and healthy work environment.

Kevin Jones

A March 2008 podcast on the issue of sex trafficking in Australia is available HERE 

 

 

Workplace bullying – interview with Lawrence Lorber (2002)

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In April 2002, I interviewed Lawrence Lorber of US law firm Proskauer Rose on workplace bullying.  It was at the height of the Enron collapse and corporate behaviour towards staff was gaining a lot of attention.  Over the last fortnight I have been researching some of the management books and concepts concerning leadership, emotional intelligence, modern expectations of managers – all of which could be thrown into “workplace culture.”

As I was reading back issue of the SafetyATWORK magazine, I used to published, there seemed to be valuable comments from Lawrence that remain relevant.  Below is an extract of the interview.  The full interview is available HERE

SAW: In Australia, the approach to workplace bullying seems to be coming from a systemic management system rather than one relying on psychological assessment.

LL: The highly competitive and highly contentious nature of what is coming out about Enron, the “up or out” atmosphere is one aspect of a system that can lead to managers or co-workers to engage in bullying. The characteristics of being tough or abrasive may be necessary to get ahead in the organisation. The environment can encourage or create bullying tendencies. However, not everybody turns into Attila the Hun in a highly competitive environment. Others survive without taking on the attributes of the bully.

Psychological testing is frequently applied in the States with regard to executive promotions. Dealing with bullying does require a combination of the systemic and individual approach. I work for some companies who are publicly perceived as fairly aggressive, there are tough people there who I might not want to work for but they are effective. They might be perceived as bullies. But looking at bullying as an environmental issue does mask the problem.

SAW: Managers sometimes need to motivate a staff member, perhaps, by rebuking them. The receiver of the rebuke may perceive that as bullying. How can we balance these perceptions?

LL: There were management books in the States in the 1980s, which encouraged management by intimidation. At one point that was the vogue. After the movie PATTON came out, everyone wanted to be General Patton.

If you look at a harsh manager who is demanding in an abrasive manner, that could be bullying.

How do you define bullying? Do you define it by your own reaction? A very US example is sex harassment. Is harassment in the eyes of the beholder? Does it have to be a reasonable woman who believes she is being harassed? In the circumstance where the bully is a male and the recipient is a female, frequently that becomes harassment.

SAW: That is a problem for the managers where for the last 30 years, harassment, bullying and discrimination has been handled outside the OHS field, in Human Resources. Now there are national and international moves to combat bullying because of the stress at work issues. I haven’t seen that approach in the United States.

LL: Here it’s not health and safety. Our definition of harassment is an “intimidating atmosphere”. That can also be a definition of bullying.

I don’t think it will be considered as a health and safety issue because workplace stress is not a field that is devoid of regulation. It is simply being regulated in a different context-employment discrimination and to a lesser extent under the disability laws. 

 

SafetyATWORK magazine April 2002 cover image
SafetyATWORK magazine April 2002 cover image

Sexual harassment and occupational health and safety

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Some old-time safety professionals are struggling with the inclusion of psychosocial hazards in their safety management programs.  Some deny the relevance of sexual harassment to their duties and hope that the issue can be contained within the human resources department, the “dark arts” of workplace safety. 

Many of these same safety professionals are calling for more evidence-based decisions on workplace safety.

Evidence is now in on the social and work impact of sexual harassment. Australia’s Human Rights Commission has issued Effectively preventing and responding to sexual harassment: A Code of Practice for employers  which states on page 48

Employers have a common law duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of their employees. This common law duty is reinforced by occupational health and safety legislation in all Australian jurisdictions.

An employer can be liable for foreseeable injuries which could have been prevented by taking the necessary precautions. As there is considerable evidence documenting the extent and effects of sexual harassment in the workplace, it has been argued that the duty to take reasonable care imposes a positive obligation on employers to reduce the risk of it occurring.

A work environment in which an employee is subject to unwanted sexual advances, unwelcome requests for sexual favours, other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, or forms of sex-based harassment, is not one in which an employer has taken reasonable care for the health and safety of its employees. A work environment or a system of work that gives rise to this type of conduct is not a healthy and safe work environment or system of work. An employer could be regarded as not having acted reasonably to prevent a foreseeable risk if practicable precautions are not taken to eliminate or minimize sexual harassment in the workplace.

Failure to fulfil the duty of care can amount to a breach of the employment contract as well as negligence on the part of the employer. This means that an employee who has been harmed could bring an action against their employer in contract or tort.

The guide can do with considerable translation to what businesses see as useful codes of practice in the application of safety management but perhaps that is for the private sector and State OHS regulators to work on.

There seems to be enough information available now on sexual harassment, fatigue, bullying, violence, fitness for work, shift work, depression and other matters, that the safety profession should be more embracing of these concepts in their own planning.  Let’s hope that in this discipline we do not have to wait for generational change to achieve a change in approach.

sexual-harassment-cop2008-cover