To Disclose or Not to Disclose

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 10, 2018

For many employees, one of the most difficult aspects of navigating the modern workplace is deciding whether to disclose a mental health issue.

Not every employee is required to be open about their condition, and there is often a fear of the potential consequences for their career if they are. 

We take a look at when an employee is obligated to disclose, what employers must do, and the pros and cons of disclosure. 

what does the law say about the employee's responsibility? 

When dealing with mental illness in the workplace, employees are not required to share details of their condition with employers unless there are legitimate concerns that it may affect their ability to perform their role properly. 

For example, employees who operate heavy machinery but are struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction or are reliant on certain types of medication should advise their employers, so that they do not risk their safety or that of their colleagues. 

Failing to share this information could mean that the employee is in breach of their obligations under Work Health and Safety legislation.

what must employers do?

Commonwealth legislation determines that it is unlawful for employers to discriminate against their employees for a variety of reasons, including discrimination on the basis of a mental health condition. 

According to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth), employers cannot act in a discriminatory fashion towards employees based on past or future conditions, temporary or permanent conditions, or actual or imputed disabilities. 

Types of discrimination which employees with mental health conditions may face include:

  • Direct discrimination, for instance when a candidate is not hired or an employee is disciplined inappropriately because of their mental health. 
  • Indirect discrimination, for example requiring all employees to eat lunch in the staff lunchroom - which for instance might cause difficulties for employees with anxiety. 

Choosing not to make adjustments for an employee who is struggling with their mental health is a form of discrimination. 

There are also obligations on employers around disclosing an employee's mental health status to others in the organisation. All employment relationships include an inherent requirement of confidentiality, which means that employers are prevented from discussing or disseminating information about their employees' mental health. 

Exceptions can be made in circumstances where the information must be shared in order to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the life or health of the employee or as required by law.

pros and cons of disclosure

Workers who don't have an obligation to disclose often struggle with the pros and cons of sharing this information with their employers and co-workers. 

A clear advantage of disclosing this information is that colleagues are aware of the circumstances under which the employee is operating and can provide a level of social support. Managers who know that a team member is struggling with mental health issues may well be more sympathetic, and can assist by providing more flexible working arrangements, lessening workloads in times of crisis, or otherwise ensuring that the workplace is generally accommodating of the employee's needs. 

Further, ill-founded rumours or gossip may be avoided by an employee being open about the difficulties they are facing and could help de-stigmatise mental health issues in the workplace. 

Disadvantages include sharing very private information with colleagues, which may be disseminated to other people in the organisation and have the potential to result in harassment or discrimination. This may be particularly relevant in circumstances where the mental health condition is temporary or does not affect the ability of the employee to perform their duties adequately.

mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

Employees can contribute to good mental health at work by:

  • Taking care of themselves
  • Avoiding known triggers
  • Participating in exercise
  • Taking regular breaks during the work day
  • Staying up to date with any medication 
  • Relying on a support network (both inside and outside work)
  • Avoiding external influences like excessive alcohol or drugs. 

If you would like more information on mental health in the workplace, check out our series of articles on Mental Health in the Workplace. WISE Workplace can also assist employers with drafting and implementing policies relating to mental health disclosure.  

Job Stress, or Psychological Injury?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Being aware of job stress, and proactive about its potential effect on staff and their ongoing mental health, is an important component of ensuring employee satisfaction and OHS in any business. 

But it is crucial not to confuse job stress with a psychological injury, which may or may not have been caused by the work environment. 

the difference between the two

A psychological or mental disorder includes a range of cognitive, emotional and behavioural symptoms which ultimately interfere with an employee's functioning and can significantly affect how they feel, think, behave and interact with others. 

This is to be contrasted with job 'stress', which can be better described by referring to physical and emotional symptoms arising in work situations. 

For example, an employee who is experiencing conflict with their manager and feels mildly apprehensive about working shifts with the manager, including feeling physical symptoms such as a slightly increased heart rate or perhaps perspiration, is likely to be suffering from job stress. 

An employee who has sustained a psychological injury may well experience 'stronger' symptoms more commonly associated with a diagnosis of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder arising from their interactions with their manager. 

Examples of psychological disorders

Psychological disorders can generally be grouped into three types: mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder), anxiety disorders (including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder), and psychotic disorders (such as schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder). 

There is a wide spectrum according to which the severity of any condition can be assessed, and simply because an employee has been diagnosed with a condition that is generally perceived to be 'serious', such as schizophrenia, this certainly does not preclude them from being fully functioning members of your team. 

early signs and symptoms of psychological disorders

It goes without saying that the signs and symptoms of a psychological disorder differ depending on the type of injury. Although far from an exhaustive list, some symptoms could include:

  • Depression: significant changes in behaviour including difficulty concentrating, drinking more alcohol as a means of self-medicating, lack of energy, finding it difficult to manage tasks which were previously easily handled, increased absenteeism. 
  • Bipolar disorder: extraordinary levels of energy, dramatic change in personality in the workplace, struggling to meet reasonable deadlines, and symptoms of depression (when the employee is 'down')
  • Anxiety disorders: unusual irritability, anxiety attacks, excessive worrying about workload or specific tasks.
  • Schizophrenia: demonstrated suspicion of co-workers, 'odd' ideas or erratic behaviours, talking to themselves. 

Tactful and considered interventions are encouraged in circumstances where employers, managers or HR initially begin to notice signs of distress or job stress.

Although intervention and assisting an employee in seeking professional assistance can in some cases possibly prevent symptoms from deteriorating, and the employee from developing a full psychological illness, this should only be undertaken by qualified and sympathetic staff. Care also needs to be taken to maintain the privacy of the employee at all stages of the intervention process. 

how is a psychological injury diagnosed?

Only an appropriately licensed medical practitioner, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or general practitioner should diagnose a psychological injury. It is anticipated that, if required, this medical practitioner will either prescribe appropriate therapy, pharmaceutical relief or both. Further, that practitioner should also conduct a 'capacity for work' assessment, if this is required before the employee is able to return to their usual duties. 

With appropriate support, even employees with significant psychological injuries or disorders should be able to continue working. Of course, this will require support from the employer in ensuring that potential 'triggers' are avoided as much as possible. 

Key determinants in assessing whether employees with psychological injuries are able to continue working include an assessment of their interpersonal functioning with their co-workers, the risks to the personal safety of any other employees, and the potential side effects of any medications. 

Our article Mental Health in the Workplace offers more information on mental health issues. Contact us to find out how we can assist with the trickier aspects of ensuring that your staff are as healthy, happy and productive as possible.

Mental Health in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Making sure that your staff are fit and healthy, enabling them to perform their duties at an optimal level, forms an essential part of being an employer of choice. But beyond ensuring that your staff are physically capable, it is essential to also look after their mental wellbeing. 

Underestimating the importance of mental health in the workplace is likely to have lasting impacts on your workers, your business and clients. 

OHS legislation requires employers to provide a safe and healthy work environment for all workers, which does not cause ill health or aggravate existing conditions.

In a series of articles, we'll examine the impact of mental health issues in the workplace, how to take appropriate steps to support staff suffering these conditions, and how you can promote mental wellness in your organisation. 

WHAT IS mental health?

Mental health is about emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. For an employer, this means keeping an eye on whether your staff are struggling to keep on top of things inside and outside of work, and taking steps to assist them with dealing with any difficulties that may be impacting their productivity. 

There are many types of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, personality disorders (such as borderline personality disorder), bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

the scope of the issue

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), around 45% of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will suffer from the symptoms of mental illness at some point during their lives. In any given year, one in five adults will deal with a mental illness. 

Some workers will commence their employment already suffering from symptoms of mental illness, while others may develop their mental illness while at work. 

In many cases, the mental illness will develop separately from circumstances in the workplace. In others, a negative or "unhealthy" work environment will contribute to staff developing mental health issues or may exacerbate underlying conditions. 

Some factors which can contribute to poor mental health in the workplace include job stress, poor workload management or unrealistic deadlines, poor communication, bullying and an overall lack of support.

the impact of poor mental health

Research shows that the cost to business of failing to pay proper attention to mental health is significant. 

The AHRC reports that workers compensation claims relating to stress and associated mental illnesses cost Australian businesses $10 billion every year. The failure of businesses to recognise the potential impact of mental health issues and failure to implement preventative or remedial measures such as early intervention, has been estimated to cost over $6.5 billion per annum. 

Absenteeism due to mental illness is another issue, with an estimated 3.2 days lost each year per worker. 

The difference between job stress and psychological injury

When it comes to identifying mental health issues in the workplace, there is a difference between work stress and psychological injury. 

Psychological injury includes behavioural, cognitive and emotional symptoms which have the potential to significantly impact a worker's ability to perform their job and interact with co-workers. 

This can be distinguished from job stress, which is generally a reaction to a specific situation which can be resolved, and is not a standalone injury.

To disclose or not to disclose 

In some circumstances, it is important for employees to disclose their mental health status. This is particularly the case if they are taking medication which could affect their ability to perform their usual employment, or if there are general concerns about safety or interactions with other staff. 

An employer has an obligation not to discriminate against staff because of their physical or mental attributes, including their mental health.

Managing and supporting mental health in the workplace

Employers can provide support by having guidelines in place for how to talk to a worker who has disclosed that they are suffering from mental health difficulties, and how employees can adjust to dealing with a colleague with a mental health issue. 

It's also essential for employers to know how to address performance concerns involving employees who are experiencing mental health struggles, without discriminating or taking ill-considered disciplinary steps.

Creating a safe and healthy workplace for all

This starts with non-discriminatory employment practices and implementing long-term strategies to promote a healthy culture and a positive workplace where staff feel they are making a meaningful contribution to an overall goal, are supported and happy to come to work. 

It's also important to create direct services to assist workers with mental health issues who require support and adjustments in the workplace. According to the AHRC, every dollar spent on identifying, supporting and managing workers' mental health issues, yields nearly a 500% return in increased productivity. 

It is highly likely that at least one worker in your workplace will, at some point in time, have a long or short-term mental illness. While you do not need to become an expert in mental health, having a better understanding of what mental illness is (including its possible effects on a worker) enables you to be more effective in handling issues that may arise.  

Issues with Intoxicated or Hungover Staff? What to do

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Most adults like to indulge in the use of alcohol from time to time. Some even like to partake a little more frequently - which is generally not problematic, in the privacy of one's own home and social sphere.

But occasionally problems with alcohol or even drug consumption can creep into the workplace, with staff under the influence while at work or under performing because of the after-effects. 

Employers have an OHS duty of care to all employees so they need to ensure that alcohol in the workplace does not give rise to safety risks. Employees also have a duty of care to themselves. Let's take a look at how employers can manage alcohol and drug-related issues in the workplace.

underlying factors and potential consequences

Alcohol and drug-related problems can occur in any workplace, across different industries. They can arise due to any number of factors, including personal issues experienced by the employee, stress, ongoing addiction, or poor workplace culture, to name a few. 

The potential consequences of alcohol or drug consumption - whether recreational or prescription - include the risk of injuries sustained by other staff and customers, absenteeism, lost production or general lack of competence, and a reliance on rehabilitation or workers compensation. 

The cost of these problems to business varies, however 1 in 10 workers say they have experienced the negative effects of a co-worker's misuse of alcohol.   

identifying alcohol or drug-related risks

One of the best ways to avoid difficulties with drugs and alcohol in the workplace is to identify potential risks and develop workplace policies that address these. 

These are some of the factors to consider when determining the level of risk facing your business:

  • Are your workers engaged in a high-stress environment? 
  • Is the operation of heavy machinery, vehicles or other equipment a requirement of your business?
  • Are there legislative or safety requirements to ensure that anybody operating this equipment is free from the influence of substances? 
  • Do staff potentially have access to illegal or significant amounts of pharmaceutical drugs, whether for their own consumption or for resale?

implementing a workplace drug and alcohol policy

At a minimum, your workplace policies should spell out:

  • Whether your company has a zero-tolerance policy for any types of drug or alcohol consumption;
  • Whether staff are required to declare reliance on specific pharmaceutical medications;
  • If random drug or alcohol testing is undertaken in the workplace; 
  • What expectations are placed on drug and alcohol consumption at work-related functions;
  • What the potential consequences of intoxication in the workplace could be

It is important to note that Section 12 of the Fair Work Act defines "serious misconduct" to include an employee being intoxicated at work. It would therefore be reasonable to dismiss an employee under those circumstances. 

It is also worthwhile ensuring that HR and other executive employees have undergone training in identifying staff who are intoxicated in the workplace or have perhaps formed habits of dependence. 

how to approach a worker who is under the influence 

When staff members suspect that a colleague may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it is important to be extremely sensitive in approaching that person. The specific approach will, of necessity, be dictated by various factors, including:

  • The relevant industry;
  • The workplace culture and structure;
  • The employee's role and seniority; 
  • The personal circumstances of the employee;
  • Whether the occurrence is 'once off' of suggests a pattern of behaviour; 
  • The legal environment;
  • The duties and responsibilities of the employee.

An employee is likely to be more responsive if they are approached from the perspective of a safety concern rather than an accusation. This is particularly the case where the behaviour or intoxication may arise from physical injuries, acute distress or prescribed medication which the patient is reacting badly to. 

During the process of drafting a workplace policy relating to drug and alcohol consumption, management should consider appointing and training specific staff members whose role it is to approach employees who are suspected to be under the influence of substances. 

These staff members could include managers, counsellors, health and safety representatives or HR representatives. A chain of command should also be instituted so that staff who have been tasked with making initial contact have somebody else to turn to for assistance if their initial approach fails.

If an employer dismisses an employee for drug/alcohol abuse and ends up with a claim for unfair dismissal, then a good employer defence would include that they had a workplace policy and approach that not only included clear consequences but also emphasised that the employer views abuse as a health issue and therefore seeks to help the employee overcome their abuse (this would be in cases where abuse outside of work is affecting performance as opposed to being intoxicated or high at work). 

This can be done by having an Employee Assistance Program (provided by an external provider); having a mental health and wellbeing policy; and an 'RUOK' approach - whereby managers encourage a culture of everyone looking out for each other and literally asking, are you ok? After all, such welfare approaches are exhausted over a reasonable period of time an employer would be safe to move to disciplinary approaches. 

Employers may also need to assess whether the issue is widespread, ie. a workplace culture of abuse. If this is the case, then there maybe engrained cultural issues that need to be investigated and remedied.   

What can employers do?

Workplaces are encouraged to establish a workplace drug and alcohol policy and procedure that can be followed in the event of a drug or alcohol-related incident in the organisation. 

WISE can assist you in drafting these policies, or assessing your current policy, and training staff. Alternatively, we can provide investigative services for any incidents that have occurred in the workplace. 

Failing to Involve HR and Other Investigation Mistakes

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Being able to conduct a competent workplace investigation is essential for employers, especially when allegations of bullying, misconduct or inappropriate office behaviour are made. 

Mistakes made during an investigation may result in serious consequences, including legal action. 

Let's take a look at the basics of an investigation, and some key mistakes to avoid.

WHy are workplace investigations necessary?

Workplace investigations are used to establish whether conduct or incidents occurred as alleged by the complainant, and to ensure that appropriate action is taken. 

Investigations are necessary when:

  • An employee may have engaged in behaviour which could result in disciplinary action or termination;
  • Complaints or reports of inappropriate conduct are received;
  • Allegations have been made by one staff member against another - such as claims of workplace bullying, harassment or unreasonable performance management.
  • There is evidence of breaches of safety provisions or other procedures.
  • There are allegations of child abuse. 

what does an investigation involve?

An investigation involves the unbiased gathering and evaluation of relevant and objective evidence, for example by interviewing witnesses and involved parties, reviewing documentary evidence, and or doing a site inspection. 

The conduct, once it established that it occurred, is then measured against the organisation's policies and procedures, Code of Conduct, regulations or legislation, to determine whether a breach has occurred.

what are some key investigation mistakes?

Significant mistakes which can occur during an investigation include:

  • Failing to consider all the relevant evidence - for example, by failing to interview all relevant parties, not asking appropriate questions or failing to document all information collected;
  • Appointing the wrong investigator - for example, by appointing an investigator who is not seen to be independent or who lacks experience in conducting workplace investigations; 
  • Not reporting a complaint to Human Resources and a failure to seek advice;
  • Not allowing the participants procedural fairness by failing to inform them accurately of the complaint against them, failing to give them adequate time to prepare a response or failing to inform them of their right to have a support person present. 
  • Failing to anticipate all the potential risks that could arise during an investigation
  • Failing to provide appropriate notification to all the relevant parties; and
  • Breaching privacy obligations 

so, who should investigate?

The appropriate person to investigate is often determined by the nature of the complaint or allegation - depending on the situation, it may be appropriate to have a senior manager or a member of the Human Resources department review an allegation. 

Avoid actual, perceived or potential conflicts of interest. The investigator must be a neutral party, not someone who is closely connected to the matter, who has had prior involvement in it, who has a direct interest in the outcome or may be a witness in the matter.

When determining who to appoint as an investigator, it is also crucial to assess who has the right level of experience and appropriate skills. 

This was highlighted in a High Court case involving Patrick Stevedores, where an HR manager was appointed to conduct a serious misconduct investigation. However, her lack of experience meant that she failed to gather crucial evidence supporting the dismissal of an employee - who was ultimately found to have been unfairly dismissed.

Should an external or internal investigator be appointed?

In some circumstances, it may not be appropriate to investigate a complaint in-house. Some reasons to appoint an external investigator include; 

  • Internal staff may lack the required skills or knowledge;
  • There is insufficient internal capacity to focus on an investigation; 
  • Allegations have been made against a senior employee, who in other circumstances may be the one tasked with an investigation; 
  • There are concerns an internal investigator may be perceived as being biased and a higher level of neutrality and objectivity is required.
  • The issues raised are complex and/or involve a large number of people in the organisation or significant external oversight. 

If the allegation involves an internal procedure or a matter involving particular expertise (such as a medical incident occurring in a hospital) then it may be more appropriate to engage an internal investigator, or have both external and internal investigators working together. 

Risks of an investigation being conducted incorrectly

There are many situations in which a poor workplace investigation can have serious consequenced for a business. It can lead to adverse legal action - such as in the Patrick Stevedores case. It can also result in serious mental health implications for staff who are unfairly treated during the investigative process, with a subsequent increase in resignations or terminations. It can also result in failure to meet legal or procedural requirements set by external oversight bodies. 

Lesson for employers

When making decisions in relation to workplace investigations, employers should:

  • Ensure that employees are aware of existing internal policies about harassment and discrimination and conduct regular training in these areas;
  • Have a regular system for updating and reviewing policies and procedures, including complaints procedures;
  • Select an appropriate and impartial investigator;
  • Respond promptly and undertake enquiries in relation to each complaint or allegation to determine whether a formal investigation is required;
  • Evaluate all facts with a view to reaching an adequately reasoned conclusion in the circumstances of an allegation;
  • Inform the parties involved of the outcome of the investigation.  

Are you concerned about a lack of knowledge or the risk of making mistakes in your workplace investigations? WISE Workplace is able to offer both full and supported investigation services. In addition, we can train your staff in how to conduct effective workplace investigations.

A Modern Problem: The Face of Workplace Bullying in 2017

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Workplace bullying comes at a high price for Australian businesses and employees, costing billions and leaving a trail of physical and mental health issues in its wake. 

Even though employers are becoming increasingly conscious about bullying and most have anti-bullying policies in place, it is still very prevalent in 2017. 

We take a look at what types of behaviour constitute workplace bullying, its magnitude, and some of the key cases heard by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) this year.

the nutS and bolts of it

Workplace bullying can come in many forms. It can be broadly defined as repeated unreasonable conduct and can include different types of abusive behaviour, whether physical, verbal, social or psychological, that occurs at work. It does not matter whether the behaviour is engaged in by a manager, a boss, or co-worker, or what the employment status of the victim is. 

Many different types of behaviours can fall within the meaning of workplace bullying. Some of the most obvious ones include:

  • Physical intimidation or violence
  • Excluding co-workers from social or work-related interactions
  • Mocking or joking at the expense of somebody in the workplace
  • Spreading gossip or rumours
  • Threats of violence or abuse

There are also a number of more subtle types of abuse frequently being employed in workplaces. According to research released in June 2017, these include: 

  • Unnecessarily micro-managing an employee so that they cannot perform their role effectively - or not providing enough supervision and support in order to permit a job to be performed competently
  • Consistently providing work well below an employee's competency 
  • Frequent reminders of errors or mistakes
  • Setting unreasonable deadlines or timeframes
  • Ignoring opinions or input
  • Exclusion from work or social events. 

what is the extent of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is prevalent in Australia. 

According to research undertaken for BeyondBlue, almost half of Australian employees will report experiencing some type of bullying during their working lives. Workplace bullying can impact performance and career progression, and result in a range of physical and mental health issues. 

It is estimated to cost Australian organisations up to $36 billion a year. 

the need for an anti-bullying culture

In order to appropriately respond to the many different types of bullying - including some of the more hidden, indirect types of bullying set out above - employers must implement clear and direct anti-bullying policies outlining what type of behaviour is considered to be unacceptable. 

Rather than solely focusing on punitive measures for dealing with inappropriate behaviour, employers are also encouraged to attempt to build a positive workplace culture through feedback, independence and trust. 

WHen employers are accused of bullying 

Given that almost anything could potentially lead to allegations of bullying, it is not surprising that many employers are concerned about being unable to treat employees with anything other than kid gloves. 

However, employers are within their rights to performance manage, discipline, retrench or otherwise alter the employment conditions of an employee in appropriate and legally permitted circumstances.  

how did the fair work COMMISSION view bullying in 2017

A number of cases before the FWC this year highlighted the need for fair and unbiased investigation of bullying allegations, and demonstrated that employers taking appropriate steps to discipline or dismiss an employee won't be penalised. 

Case Study 1: The email is mightier than the sword

In early 2017, FWC upheld a ruling that Murdoch University was right to terminate an employee for serious misconduct. That employee had sent a number of abusive emails - from his university work account - to the chief statistician of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). 

Even after complaints were forwarded by the ABS directly to the University, the employee continued to send emails to the chief statistician, and forward those on to third parties, including a federal member of parliament. In one of those emails, the worker tacitly acknowledged that his behaviour was bullying, and stated that 'bullying is the only way to deal with bullies'. 

Prior to his correspondence with the ABS, the employee had already emailed another colleague and accused her of being deliberately dishonest and suffering from mental health issues. 

Ultimately, Murdoch University stood down the employee on full pay while an investigation was conducted. It also took steps to change investigators on more than one occasion, after the employee complained about the staff investigating the matter, before ultimately dismissing the employee. 

This case is an important reminder for employers that taking appropriate and lawful steps to investigate and, if necessary, terminate employment will not constitute bullying.

Case Study 2: Lawful adversaries - bullying in law school

In another bullying case involving a university, a Deakin University law lecturer sought the imposition of anti-bullying orders on a co-worker.

Although the accused professor had previously been charged with misconduct while working at another university, the FWC refused to allow the provision of materials relating to those earlier allegations. It noted that previous management behaviours of the professor were not relevant to new claims of bullying. 

Those materials also reportedly contained commercially sensitive information regarding other employees. This reinforces the message that employers and senior staff should not feel as though they are prevented from taking steps to discipline staff without being accused of bullying, despite any previous allegations. 

Case Study 3: A failure to properly investigate

Employers must take care to properly investigate all allegations of bullying within the workplace, not only to protect the victim but also to afford due process to the accused. 

This was the case in a recent FWC decision, which determined that a mother and daughter had been unfairly terminated amidst allegations of bullying and fraud. 

The director of the abortion clinic in which the mother and daughter worked had terminated their employment after registered nurses made various complaints about the duo, including that they took excessive smoke breaks, failed to record information properly in time sheets, and had made inappropriate threats of dismissal to the nurses. 

The director failed to appropriately investigate the allegations and, crucially, did not give the terminated employees sufficient time to properly respond. The FWC found that this demonstrated favouritism and nepotism (in circumstances where the director had apparently wanted to install his own wife and daughter in the newly available roles). 

Case Study 4: Getting it both right and wrong

Even when an employer's disciplinary actions are ultimately deemed to be appropriate in all relevant circumstances, their response may still fall far short of best practice. 

That was the case when the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of NSW (Paraquad) was held to have properly dismissed a carer whose major depressive disorder meant that she no longer had the capacity to properly fulfil her role. 

However, the employee complained before her dismissal that she had suffered years of bullying and harassment which had exacerbated her psychiatric condition. This was not properly taken into account by Paraquad's HR department - even when provided with medical evidence supporting the employee's allegations as to the source of her condition. 

The FWC was particularly critical of the HR department's decision not to properly investigate the bullying allegations, because the employee had not followed workplace protocol in making her complaints. 

Case Study 5: Lessons in discourse

 Another interesting development this year revolved around language. Fair Work Commissioner Peter Hampton explained at the annual Queensland IR Society Convention in October 2017 that he eschews the use of words such as 'bully', 'victim', or 'allegeable'. It is advisable to avoid unhelpful labels which might shoehorn parties into certain roles. 

A similar approach is being encouraged in the Queensland Public Service Commission, particularly when dealing with domestic violence, where labels such as 'perpetrator' are actively discouraged and a rehabilitative approach is desired. 

The take home message

So what lessons can employers take away from the way the FWC has dealt with bullying in 2017? In summary employers should:

1. Take all complaints of bullying seriously, and conduct unbiased, fair investigations

2. Ensure that those accused of offences are afforded due process and have the opportunity to respond to allegations against them

3. Take positive steps to devise and implement workplace policies which make it clear that bullying behaviour will not be tolerated and will be investigated as necessary

4. Ensure that any action taken to discipline or dismiss an employee is reasonable and appropriate. 

For expert assistance with these and any other matters related to workplace investigations and how to respond to workplace bullying complaints, contact WISE Workplace today.  

Navigating the Choppy Waters of Mental Illness at Work

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Mental Illness is highly prevalent in our society - 45% of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives, and 20% will suffer from mental health issues during any given year. 

Given these statistics, employers will likely deal with at least a few employees who have mental health issues annually. 

So, what is expected of an employer in this situation? 

understanding mental illness

The first step is to understand that there are many types of mental illness. Depression and anxiety are very common, and fall into the category of mood disorders. Other types of mental illness include personality disorders or psychotic disorders, amongst others. 

Generally speaking, a person getting appropriate treatment for a mental illness can be an active contributor in the workforce and the community, and the vast majority of people suffering from mental illness do not pose any risk to others. 

A mental illness may develop separately from the workplace, for example due to issues stemming from the sufferer's personal life. However, the average employee loses 3.2 work days per year due to the impact of dealing with workplace stress - so it is clear that the workplace can be a significant contributing factor in mental health issues. 

managing the contributing factors at work

An employer has a duty of care to ensure that the workplace is safe and healthy for employees. Employers need to identify workplace practices or actions which could cause or contribute to mental illness, and eliminate or significantly reduce the risks associated with these. 

This includes preventing bullying or harassing behaviours, ensuring that managerial staff are trained in properly dealing with performance management and with staff who are experiencing mental health issues, and even limiting situations where excessive alcohol use may be encouraged.

supporting workers who disclose a mental illness

Employers should take steps to ensure that those workers who are suffering with their mental health have access to appropriate resources, including flexibility to attend medical appointments, ease in accessing days off when necessary, and perhaps in-house counselling sessions or a mentoring program. 

When dealing with an employee who has reported their mental illness, employers should be prepared to ask questions such as: 

  • How can we help?
  • How can we make you feel more supported?
  • What are your triggers and how can we manage these in the workplace?
  • Are you coping, and if not, what strategies can we implement to help you stay on top of things?

From a legal perspective, an employer is also required to ensure that workers are not discriminated against or subjected to any adverse action because of their mental health status.

what happens if a worker doesn't disclose? 

In developing a strategy for dealing with mental health issues in the workplace, employers should consider how they can encourage workers to be comfortable in disclosing their status. This will require members of the HR team to be equipped with the skills to ask the right questions. 

Employers can also inform staff who they suspect may be struggling with their mental health about an option to seek confidential support for an Employer Assistance Program or external professional advisor.

In circumstances where an employer is concerned about a worker who is displaying symptoms of mental illness but has not disclosed any conditions, the supervisor should be appropriately trained and prepared to open a dialogue with the employee. 

Alternatively, an employer could monitor data such as employee workload, unexplained absences or lack of productivity, and seek the employee's consent to obtain medical information. Armed with this information, an employer can create a flexible environment within which each worker can be encouraged to perform at their best. 

protecting all employees

It is incumbent on employers to remember that they must balance the potential risks to all of their employees. 

Although they cannot discuss an employee's mental health status, if the employer is genuinely concerned about the potential impact on colleagues or the business itself, appropriate steps can be taken to performance manage or otherwise discipline the employee. 

However, in taking such action, it is crucial for an employer to ensure that it is poor performance or risky behaviour which is managed or disciplined, and that the worker concerned is not discriminated against on the grounds of their mental health status. 

Employers should also consider developing a mental health policy. This document can be used to demonstrate that all staff are entitled to confidential support free from discrimination, harassment or bullying, regardless of their mental health status. 

It can also be used to demonstrate that staff who are acting inappropriately in the workplace cannot simply rely on their mental illness as an excuse to endanger themselves or others on an ongoing basis. 

Key issues which should be address in the policy include: 

  • Access to confidential support and consultation for all staff
  •  Anti-harassment and bullying protocols
  • Policies and procedures relating to reasonable adjustments which may be required to assist staff with a mental illness
  • Identification of risks in the workplace and strategies for minimising the potential impact on staff if they are exposed to those risks (such as a death, or trauma in the workplace)

How can we help

Navigating your way to a mentally healthy workplace isn't easy. If you'd like assistance in encouraging a supportive work environment in your organisation, including drafting mental health and anti-bullying policies and creating appropriate performance management programs, contact us

'I Was Sent to Coventry' and Other Social Bullying Techniques

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

When we think of bullying, the clichés of schoolyard taunts might spring to mind. Yet as we learn more about the wide-ranging techniques of bullying, it is clear that this deeply complex phenomenon can be hard to pin down. 

For example, being ignored, or made an outcast in any situation - 'sent to Coventry' - can be highly distressing. This insidious brand of social bullying unfortunately arises in many workplaces, causing pain and anxiety for victims.

what is bullying? 

Bullying can be physical (including hitting or even destroying property), verbal, cyber (such as bullying on social media), and social. 

A person being 'Sent to Coventry' is a form of social bullying. 

So what do we mean by a person being 'Sent to Coventry'? Historically the phrase appears during the English Civil War when prisoners would be sent to the eponymous North-Western City for punishment, and experienced isolating treatment by locals. But how does this tend to manifest as workplace bullying? 

Picture this: on the surface, the workplace looks pleasant. There is occasional chatter and people seem content. But look closer - on Friday lunch excursions, one person appears to be ignored by the others as they leave. In meetings this person's colleagues seem to ignore their ideas, or quietly mock them when they have the courage to speak. They have also mysteriously been kept off the roster except for a few skeleton shifts... and so on. 

These are classic moves of ostracism as a weapon for workplace bullying. Left unmonitored, such behaviour can lead to severe stress and mental health problems for the outcast employee. 

The worker might originally have committed a 'sin' in the eyes of co-workers - perhaps told management about colleagues misconduct, or appears to be given special treatment. On some level, one or more workers have judged this as being unforgivable, leading to a long and toxic period of unrelenting silence, mockery and isolation.

bullying women, bullying men

What are the gender differences when it comes to social bullying? Unfortunately, this more covert behaviour seems to be a particular feature of female-to-female bullying

The phrase 'deafening silence' sums up the effect of this form of workplace bullying, where a worker is deliberately placed on the outside of a work group dynamic by one or more of their colleagues. 

The mechanisms are often subtle, and certainly challenging for management and workplace investigators to detect or prove. Yet by their very nature, stealthy and outwardly ambiguous bullying tactics in the form of ostracism and freezing-out can be painful and injurious for the victims of such attacks.

Men can also engage in subtle forms of social bullying, but are more likely to add overt actions as they bully a fellow worker. Particularly where rank or divisions enable such bullying, male offenders might sabotage the atmosphere and opportunities for targeted colleagues, later escalating to overt physical and verbal abuse. 

pulling rank - the hierarchical workplace

In the armed forces, emergency services and police, there is an opportunity for those in particular positions to 'close ranks' as a form of workplace bullying. For the victims of such behaviour, equipment can mysteriously go missing and vital operational information can 'somehow' bypass the bullied person. Aggressive taunts are also more likely in rank-based organisations.

questioning what is true

Most 'quiet' forms of workplace bullying seem to evaporate when management or a workplace investigator shows up. Also, consummate 'Coventry' bullies will sometimes alternate their attacks with neutral or even pleasant exchanges with the bullied worker. 

The victim is left on the back foot, unsure of what is real or imagined and often quickly becoming susceptible to both functional and mental decline as a result. Such 'gas lighting' attacks often cause the most long-term harm to a worker. 

Investigators must be vigilant in exploring alleged workplace bullying of this type. Common mistakes in the field can be when those investigating warm to often-extroverted perpetrators; bullies are masters of manipulation and can at times seem charming.

Conversely, the worker claiming bullying might appear nervy and unclear in their communication - perhaps even a little 'odd' compared to other workers. Rather than using this as a basis for dismissing the allegations, the history and behaviours behind all interviews must be carefully collated and compared with utmost objectivity. Indeed, the unusual presentation of a worker might in fact indicate a reaction to the effects of a covert system of workplace bullying.

Gathering evidence from multiple witnesses will often assist in identifying if there have been any patterns of behaviour from the perpetrators. 

When it comes to claims that a worker has been 'Sent to Coventry' and subjected to social workplace bullying, it is important to approach the ensuing workplace investigation with care. 

WISE Workplace is happy to assist you with any queries you might have regarding the right way to investigate any alleged workplace bullying incident. We offer unbiased, professional investigation services, carried out by a qualified and experienced team.

How Can HR Support Staff During a Workplace Investigation?

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Where a complaint has been made by one staff member against another, and a workplace investigation takes place, all kinds of emotions can be running high. 

People participating in a workplace investigation, whether as complainants, respondents or even witnesses, can suffer symptoms of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as emotional distress. 

Respondents in particular can feel abandoned and cold-shouldered, especially in cases where HR departments decide to take a 'hands-off' approach while the investigation is being conducted. If a respondent is also suspended from work during the process, they may also feel prejudged and already declared guilty. 

In light of this, it's extremely important that employers ensure that investigations are handled fairly and impartially, and that all participants are supported. 

Here's how HR can help support participants throughout a workplace investigation.

THROUGH TRANSPARENCY AND COMMUNICATION

First and foremost, effective communication and transparency are vital from the outset. A failure to communicate can worsen distress and lead to participants thinking the worst. 

Decide on being transparent from the beginning. This involves taking the complaint seriously, listening to all sides, and making sure all participants know how the complaint will be handled. It's also important to check back that they have understood what was said and address any misunderstandings (something that can easily happen when emotions and tensions are high!)   

SETTING OUT THE PROCESS

It's important to get to work quickly, appoint an investigator, and make decisions regarding the scope of the investigation, the timeframe, and actions to be taken after completion. However, do be prepared for the process possibly taking longer than anticipated. 

Once you've decided on the process, make sure to keep everyone informed of how the investigation will be conducted and what they can expect, and aim to keep communication lines open throughout. Also reassure the respondent that they are not in any way being prejudged, even if they have been suspended for a time during the investigation. 

APPOINTING A SUPPORT PERSON

Participants need to know they have someone to go to for emotional support, who can also explain the process and answer any questions they may have. 

One thing to note here is that employees may not necessarily show their emotions at work and this could lead you to think they are fine and don't need assistance, when in fact the opposite is true. 

Appoint a support person whose role it is to regularly check up on the person and provide support without taking sides. 

CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS WITH RESPECT 

Interviews need to be conducted fairly and withe respect and non-partiality. 

It's important to avoid acting like an interrogator; your job is to uncover the facts and truth of the matter and not to extract a 'confession'. This means all participants should be treated with respect and empathy, and given breaks during interviews if required. 

OFFERING POST-INVESTIGATION SUPPORT

An investigation can affect everyone and can reduce morale and trust in a workplace. It may in some cases even lead to employees seeking work elsewhere after feeling demoralised by the whole experience. 

In a case where the respondent has been restored to duty, it may be hard for them to simply go back to 'business as usual'. The same may also apply to complainers, particularly if the investigation did not go the way they wanted. 

Be prepared for it to take some time for trust and morale to be restored, and offer mentoring and support after the process to anyone who needs it. Be proactive in rebuilding trust and positive relationships. 

Lastly, we can provide expert assistance with workplace investigations. Feel free to contact us for more information.  

Handling a Paranoid Response to Workplace Investigations

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, June 21, 2017

In conducting workplace investigations, both the alleged victim and perpetrator and potentially even witnesses may have an intensely personal reaction to the accusations. But what happens if one of the people involved in a workplace investigation has a mental illness or otherwise suffers from poor mental health? 

In this situation, a workplace investigation can be perceived as a direct personal attack - for example, a complainant may feel that the mere fact of an investigation means that they are not taken seriously or believed in their allegations. A respondent to a complaint may feel vilified or victimised by having to respond to the claims at all. In these circumstances, it could be easy for paranoia to creep in during the investigative process. 

So what additional steps should a prudent employer take during the investigative process when dealing with an employee who struggles with their mental health? 

POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES OF FAILING TO CONSIDER MENTAL HEALTH

The State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia report, released by TNS Australia and Beyond Blue, has found that 45% of all adult Australians will experience a mental health condition at one point in their lives. In addition, untreated mental illness costs Australian Workplaces almost $11 billion annually.  

This financial cost (calculated on the basis of absentee figures, 'presenteeism' where employees are physically present but not performing to their maximum capabilities, and compensation claims) is reason enough to take mental health in the workplace seriously, and to ensure that workplace investigations do not run roughshod over the rights of employees with mental health concerns. 

However, even more concerning is the potential for a poorly handled workplace investigation to exacerbate an employee's mental illness or even to cause a new psychological injury. 

It is crucial for employers to ensure that workplace investigations are conducted sensitively and have regard to any disclosed or hidden mental health issues suffered by employees. This is particularly the case given that it is an employer's legal obligation to ensure that workplaces are free from conduct which could reasonably be foreseen to cause injury, including psychological injury, to employees. A failure to do so can leave the employer exposed to a compensation claim.  

WHAT SHOULD AN EMPLOYER'S RESPONSE BE?

Employers must ensure that investigators don't dismiss signs of paranoia as an employee being 'silly' or simply difficult. 

It's important to recognise that the employee does genuinely feel under threat, without agreeing with them, and to lay out any evidence clearly. 

It can also be helpful to detail how the investigation will proceed to avoid the risk of misunderstandings, for example an employee deciding that more than a week has passed therefore an adverse finding must have been made against them. 

Honesty and fairness are key in any workplace investigation, but it is particularly important to demonstrate both when dealing with an employee who is feeling under attack. It's essential to remain patient, and work on building trust and rapport in interviews.  

Employees should also be able to access a support person of their choice to participate in any interviews or other formal steps of the investigation. 

Being available and following through on any actions that have been decided on, however minor, may also help lower a fearful employee's anxiety. 

If the initial complaint has caused or substantially contributed to an employee's poor mental health, and this has resulted in the employee receiving a medical certificate, an employer should consider not permitting the employee to return to work until the investigation has been resolved. Any decision along those lines should be made strictly in consultation with the employee's medical team and the employee themselves.  

    HOW WE CAN HELP

    Taking these simple steps will help to ensure that your staff do not feel victimised and do not become unduly paranoid or concerned about the investigative process and potential outcomes.  

    At WISE Workplace, we can help you navigate your way through the potential minefield of workplace investigations. We offer full investigation services if you prefer to outsource, and also training to assist you in running your own investigations.