Responding to Bad Behaviour at the Christmas Party

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 27, 2019

It's no secret that both the good and the bad can be on display at the annual work Christmas party. While smiles and good cheer can and should be the main features at an end-of-year bash, some unfortunate behaviour can also arise. 

Alcohol abuse, sexual harassment and aggressive behaviour are just some of the less savoury possibilities. But despite the instinct to punish personnel who wander astray, it is vital that employers respond to Christmas misbehaviour in a manner which is both reasonable and proportionate.

Alcohol abuse/intoxication

For many workers and business owners, the idea of a Christmas party with zero alcohol is a rather bleak one. Secret Santa, sausage rolls and a few cool beverages tend to be part of the workplace festive tradition. Yet the results of intoxication at the work Christmas party are the stuff of unfortunate legend. Raised voices, wild dancing, lewd comments, recriminations and unwanted advances are just some of the potential products of the wrong mix of drinks.

Moderation is everything when it comes to the supply of alcohol at the end-of-year event. Plenty of forewarning to staff about rules and refreshments will also help to keep proceedings on an even keel.

sexual harassment

The well-known reduction of inhibitions caused by alcohol consumption can lead to one of the more serious Christmas party side-effects: sexual harassment. The working year is over, the relief is palpable and perhaps a perceived flirtation is taken in an unacceptable direction. Behaviour that would certainly be shunned in the ordinary workplace can seem 'up for grabs' in the glittery glow of the Christmas party lights.

Alcohol can of course be part of the unacceptable sexual harassment situation: yet sometimes just the high spirits of the Christmas party itself can lead to an array of unacceptable approaches and behaviours.

Aggressive behaviour 

As with misconceived flirtation, the office Christmas party can bring out the worst forms of aggressive behaviour. Personal tensions can simmer during the year, with the relief of the office party creating an unleashing of built-up emotion. Add alcohol to the mix, and there is a strong possibility that arguments, fights and even assaults will emerge.

Case study - keeping things proportionate 

The case of Keenan v Leighton Boral NSW Pty Ltd [2015] FWC 3156 reflects the need to act swiftly in response to Christmas party problems - yet to do so in a fair and measured way.

In this case, the Fair Work Commission was faced with the troubling situation of an employee becoming intoxicated and proceeding to swear, abuse and provide unwanted advances through the night. He was dismissed. However, the worker's excellent work record, combined with the employer's dubious provision of free-flowing alcohol, saw Keenan's dismissal overturned by the FWC.

In particular, it was noted that any disciplinary action needed to be reasonable and proportionate to the condemned behaviour. The limitless alcohol situation certainly did little to assist the employer's case. And while the employee's drunken behaviour was a nightmare of ill-conceived comments, actions and insults, the FWC noted that his long and notable record of service required the employer to be reasonable in response.

It is certainly a cautionary tale to employers supplying alcohol at Christmas parties. If no limits are placed upon the type and volume of alcohol consumed by workers across time, then a large part of the fault in such cases will no doubt be seen to rest with employers.

managing the christmas party risks 

When it comes to organising the annual Christmas party, it pays for employers to plan the event well in advance. All employees should be aware of the order of proceedings, times and expectations at the party. Employers should plan food and alcohol extremely well, working out how the judicious service of alcohol will be managed through the night.

Providing security staff on the night can also be an excellent way to keep emotions and good cheer under some sort of control!

The Keenan case certainly demonstrates the importance of undertaking a thorough and considered investigation before taking serious disciplinary action against an employee. In unfair dismissal claims, the Commission will not hesitate to find in favour of the applicant where the employer failed to apply proportionate disciplinary action. If you would like to ensure your investigation process is considered and enforceable, WISE provides full and supported investigation services, as well as investigation training for your staff. 

How to Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Unfortunately, dealing with allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace is an issue for many employers. Sexual harassment can take many forms, and cases are rarely "open and shut".

Once allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct have been made, they must be appropriately investigated and dealt with. However, prevention is always better than cure.

Let's take a look at employer obligations, the scale of the problem and how employers can help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

obligation to provide a safe workplace 

Employers are required by law to provide a safe workplace for all employees. This is enshrined in the workplace health and safety legislation throughout Australia (for example, s19 of the Workplace Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW)).

Legislation requires employers to provide for physical safety, for example, by preventing unsafe worksite practices which could cause injuries to employees. It also extends to ensuring that employees are protected against physical and psychological harm caused by sexual harassment or assault, and mental harm (such as could be caused by bullying or harassment).

The facts - workplace sexual harassment

A 2018 sexual harassment study conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission, found that one in three Australian workers claim to have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years. This figure has increased from one in five workers in 2012, and one in ten in 2003. Of course, this may be due to employees becoming more aware of what sexual harassment is and what their rights are in relation to reporting or taking steps to report and prevent it. However, it is still a worrying statistic.

Interestingly, although sexual harassment affects both genders (with 26% of men and 39% of women interviewed reporting experiences of sexual harassment), those most likely to be harassed in the workplace are aged between 18 and 29. Moreover, despite the fairly equal gender split in victimology, the overwhelming majority (80%) of harassers are men.

Tips for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace 

There are a number of strategies that can help employers nip sexual harassment in the bud. These include:

  • Management support. It is essential that all levels of management, but particularly the highest levels of the executive team, embrace an anti-harassment culture. This is particularly important when one considers that, at least anecdotally, there may be a perception that sexual victimisation is a top-down phenomenon. It is important for management to demonstrate that no type of sexual harassment will be tolerated in the workplace. Similarly, the executives of any workplace must demonstrate that they will deal swiftly and appropriately with those who have been found to have engaged in sexual harassment. Ultimately, it is essential that the entire business receives the message that sexual victimisation will not be tolerated on any level. This also means that appropriate conduct by managers should always be encouraged.
  • Creation of a sexual harassment policy. A clear, detailed and easily accessible sexual harassment policy should be created, setting out exactly what the company's position on such harassment is. This should include the specific behaviours that will constitute sexual harassment and will not be tolerated. It must also be widely circulated amongst staff, ideally with a sign-off required confirming that staff have read and understood the policy.
  • Provision of training. Again, this should be rolled out company-wide, and conducted on a regular basis. It is important that there is general awareness, not only of what is defined to be sexual harassment, but an understanding of what rights and remedies are available to those who feel that they have been a victim of this type of harassment.
  • Encouraging a positive workplace environment. By implementing the above steps, a positive environment will be fostered, which will also encourage staff at all levels to be proactive about preventing sexual harassment or calling it out when it occurs.

the need for employer action

In addition to the general requirement to provide safe working conditions for staff, there are other positive obligations on employers in relation to sexual harassment.

For example, in Victoria, the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (VIC) imposes a positive duty on employers to prevent any sort of sexual harassment from occurring.

Similarly, employers Australia-wide may be deemed to be vicariously liable for the conduct of their employees, if it can be demonstrated that they did not take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment (per the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth)).

In order to protect the business, it is crucial that immediate and appropriate action by way of response to a sexual harassment notification occurs. Training managers and staff about sexual harassment and the company's stance on it is vital.

Sexual harassment in the workplace continues to be a great concern for both employees and employers. Taking active steps and educating staff is crucial in reducing the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace. Accordingly, WISE Workplace offers employers training programs to address and investigate workplace sexual harassment, as well as independent investigation services to review such behaviours. 


Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Employers understand that it is their responsibility to provide a safe workplace. Yet unlike physical health safety concerns and hazards such as lifting, tripping, sun exposure and dust reduction, many employers find themselves uncertain about how to support the mental health and wellbeing of their staff.

The first and most powerful antidote to this uncertainty is becoming informed. For business owners and managers, this includes stepping up and finding answers about common mental health challenges, causes and implications in the workplace.

Let's take a look at some of these factors, and how employers can support their workers' mental wellbeing.

COMMON TYPES OF MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES 

Thankfully, many mental health disorders have become better understood and less stigmatised. While not perfect, attitudes towards mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression have changed and are better understood now, than even a decade ago.

However, even though there is understanding that 1 in every 4 Australians will experience some form of mental health issue during their lives, the cliches about non-physical illnesses still abound. This can include the idea that all depressed people are sad, or that anxious people just need to learn to calm down. Another painfully familiar idea is that people with a mental illness are inherently unstable.

For less-understood conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD, ADD and PTSD, the accommodation of these and the provision of necessary reasonable adjustments where required in the workplace and beyond, remains incredibly low. Between 6-8% of all adult mental illnesses will be one of these mentioned, so there is every chance that a person in your workplace is currently living with such a challenge on a daily basis.

One common misconception is that people with such mental health conditions are somehow defective - and can't or won't work. Yet the reality is that many high functioning people being treated for mood disorders and other chronic mental health conditions are living and working effectively around Australia at this moment.

Step out against stigma

Sadly, Australians who are working despite carrying a mental health issue often feel that they need to work faster/harder/longer/more to prove their worth - and keep their 'problem' quiet. Women, migrants and those with disabilities can certainly understand this kind of historical over-compensation in the workplace. So, when events arise that could exacerbate the situation, employers might only find out once the worst of the damage has already been done. It is vital therefore to build preventative mechanisms, systems and practises for reducing the kinds of workplace behaviours that can both create and exacerbate mental health issues. 

the key contributors to mental health issues 

The key contributors to workplace mental issues include bullying and harassment, excessive workload, repetitive work routines, and stress. The painful and devastating effects of bullying and harassment are difficult for any worker to face. For employees burdened with a mental health challenge, the impacts can be debilitating.

As mentioned, mental illness can often be carried silently in the workplace, largely due to stigma. If a workload becomes excessive, an employee might not speak up for fear of reprisal. Employers need to put in place systems to monitor these burdens. Repetitive, mundane work can also lead to health and safety issues for workers. One problem that was identified in the Industrial Revolution is that humans need variety! And stress is another 'top 5' cause or primary exacerbator of mental health problems in the workplace: uncertainty, discord and constant change can all build up and cause health concerns.  

adverse outcomes for the workplace

Absenteeism is an unfortunate but not surprising outcome when people are not supported in the workplace. For those with an existing mental health issue, workplace stressors such as bullying and harassment can cause  an exacerbation of the illness. At times like these, attendance can be extremely difficult, if not impossible for an unwell worker to maintain. In a similar way, when mental health issues are not supported in the workplace, reduced productivity is the inevitable consequence. To produce the goods and services at a high and continuous level, workers need to feel well and to feel supported, safe and valued. 

employer obligations to health and safety 

It can be somewhat more familiar for employers to think about workplace health and safety only in terms of physical wellbeing. This narrow notion is not correct and a safe workplace also requires understanding and protection of all workers and particularly those with mental health needs. This necessitates taking the time to understand particular mental health conditions more thoroughly, and to take steps towards ensuring a safer and healthier workplace.

Providing safety to employees from direct and indirect mental harm in the workplace involves much more than merely paying lip service to the notion of promoting good mental health and the occasional 'Are you okay'? query. When an employee develops or divulges a mental health issue, the first step is to provide and encourage open communication. Employers can show their interest in learning more about the condition and what might be done to assist the employee at a practical level.

They should make any and all reasonable adjustments required, to support the employee which may include offering or organising flexible working arrangements, if this is something that might assist the worker in question. Anti-bullying policies should be regularly reviewed and strengthened to ensure that the chances of a workplace mental injury occurring are reduced.

An audit to identify a comprehensive suite of risk strategies and processes should be undertaken, to ensure that the workplace is the safest and healthiest that it can be - from any standpoint.

stepping up to a well workplace 

It makes sense for employers to make a commitment to the mental health and wellbeing of staff. As well as producing excellent improvements in absenteeism, reduction in staff turnover, productivity and injury rates, it's also simply the right thing to do. If you'd like more information and education on mental health in the workplace, check out our series of articles on this topic, starting with Mental Health in the Workplace


Can Employers Investigate if Complainants Ask Them Not To?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 22, 2019

One of the more difficult aspects of managing an employment relationship is appropriately dealing with complaints, both from the perspective of the complainant and the accused. This is made even more complicated when a reluctant complainant brings something to the attention of Human Resources or management, then does not want it investigated. 

We examine why a complainant might not want to take an issue further, and what an employer's rights and obligations are in these circumstances.

why a complainant might be reluctant

There are many reasons why an employee might be reluctant to have a complaint investigated. These include: 

  • Fear of retribution - This is common in circumstances where the 'accused' holds a position of power over the complainant in the workplace. The complainant might fear reprisals and that their daily work life will become more difficult. This is particularly the case if the complaint relates to physical, sexual or emotional aggression. 
  • Fear that the complainant will not be taken seriously - The complainant might be worried their complaint will be considered 'trivial' or won't be dealt with objectively because of the position of the other party.
  • Time commitments - It is well known that an investigation will require a significant amount of time commitment from all parties. A complainant might not wish to be involved in a lengthy and time-consuming process. 
  • Lack of evidence - Complainants could feel that they are involved in a 'he said, she said' situation. The complainant might be concerned that an investigation will not ultimately support their version of events.    

The best way to address these concerns is for Human Resources or management to make clear to staff that all complaints are taken seriously and are duly investigated. This is regardless of who made the complaint, against whom it is levelled, and how much evidence might be required to fully conduct an investigation.

is a complainant allowed to withdraw a complaint? 

A complainant has the right to withdraw both the complaint and their support of any investigation. This generally spells the end of the investigation, because the person who receives a complaint is bound by confidentiality. This leaves the reluctant complainant as the only source of evidence to support an investigation.  

employer obligations to investigate

But employers are obliged to balance their duties of confidentiality with their obligations under workplace health and safety legislation. This includes eliminating discrimination and ensuring that everybody is able to undertake their jobs without unreasonable impostes. In circumstances of accusations of significant misconduct or even criminal activity, an employer may be justified in or even compelled to pursue an investigation, notwithstanding that a complaint has been withdrawn.

For example, if the complainant has raised issues of conduct that may constitute the commissioning of fraud, then the withdrawal of the complaint will not immediately result in the conduct alleged not being able to be independently investigated. There are also other considerations and duties of care that need to be taken into consideration before an informed decision to not undertake or to cease an investigation can be appropriately made. 

The dangers of a rigid policy structure

Although it is essential that all businesses have a complaints and grievances policy, there is some risk in having a procedure that is perceived as being too strict or rigid. If the general consensus amongst the staff is that there are only 'black and white' approaches toward dealing with complaints, this could result in staff being deterred from reporting incidents. This could ultimately result in employers breaching their legislative obligations and duty of care. 

At WISE Workplace, we have expertise in dealing with investigations involving reluctant parties. Talk to our team about full or supported investigation services for your organisation.

How to Take Action when Employees and Alcohol Mix

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Alcohol and workplaces never mix well. No matter the sort of work they do, employees should not be in the workplace when they are under the influence or still suffering the effects of alcohol consumption. This includes drinking at work or immediately before starting work, and those who are still impacted by a big night out. 

So what steps should an employer take when dealing with a worker who they suspect is intoxicated in the office?

approaching an intoxicated employee

Occupational health and safety legislation throughout Australia places an obligation on employers to protect not only the safety of the intoxicated employee, but that of all other employees as well. 

This means making sure that an intoxicated employee can't hurt themselves or anyone else. Accordingly, employers have an obligation to approach intoxicated employees and ask them to leave work immediately (without driving a vehicle, of course!). 

However, being intoxicated at work does not necessarily mean that employees can be terminated immediately. When determining whether a dismissal for intoxication in the workplace is 'valid' or can be upheld, courts will consider several factors. These include whether the company's drug and alcohol policy or any contractual arrangements in place with the employee are sufficiently clear to demonstrate that there is a 'zero tolerance' policy for alcohol in the workplace. 

Although employees should certainly be disciplined for being intoxicated at work, employers who are wishing to avoid claims for unfair dismissal should consider interim steps such as clearly worded warnings rather than summarily dismissing staff.

factors that may contribute to alcohol abuse

Of course, prevention is always better than cure. Employers should give some thought to factors that may encourage their staff to over-indulge in alcohol to the extent that they are intoxicated in the workplace. 

Key risk factors include:

  • Age, gender and socio-economics. According to the Alcohol.Think Again campaign, young men who work in lower skilled or manual occupations are statistically most likely to be involved in 'risky drinking'.
  • Isolation (geographical isolation or social isolation within work peer groups)
  • Bullying, harassment and other interpersonal difficulties
  • Poor supervision, or support in the workplace
  • Difficult working conditions
  • High levels of stress 

How alcohol use can impact the workplace

An intoxicated employee can pose a risk to the safety of themselves and others. This is magnified when the employee is in a customer-facing role, or they are required to do manual work involving precision or machinery. 

Regardless of the nature of the work however, job performance can suffer as a result of the poor concentration and low productivity that will likely result from intoxication.

Steps to address alcohol use in the workplace

In addition to mitigating workplace risk factors, employers should ensure that they have clear and detailed drug and alcohol policies which identify under what conditions an employee would be determined to be 'intoxicated'. Policies should also clearly spell out the consequences of breaching those conditions. 

Employers must ensure that any breaches of the policy are thoroughly and objectively investigated, and any required disciplinary action is taken swiftly. 

If you would like to know more about risk management and creating effective drug and alcohol policies, or you require assistance with investigating an incident involving an intoxicated employee, contact WISE today.

Gender Equality: How to Create a Win-Win in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 13, 2019

It can seem unbelievable that gender inequality persists in Australian workplaces in 2019. As well as the obvious human rights issues, some employers and managers fail to comprehend that a lack of gender equality can have measurable negative consequences for the organisation as a whole. 

Let's examine some of the alarming statistics around the situation for women in the workplace, the benefits of championing gender equality, and some of the more positive approaches that can be taken by organisations to create a win-win situation.

inequality - some sobering statistics

To fully understand gender inequality in Australian workplaces, it can help to absorb some of the bald statistics. Women across the Australian workforce are paid 15.3% less than men for equivalent work, and accumulate less than half the superannuation. They have a 50% chance of experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, and the same odds of experiencing discrimination on the basis of being a parent! 

Barriers to gender equality in the workplace can be both subtle and not-so-subtle. Positional bias and diminished responsibility stem from the idea that only one gender or the other is 'right' for a job, such as reception work or heavy lifting. Subtler barriers see women being asked about family issues at job interviews - and yet not men. 

Other barriers include a lack of targeted support to help women overcome the promotional glass ceiling. For example, if the ability to act in higher positions, attend training or to network with stakeholders is not made sufficiently flexible for women in the workplace, then that glass ceiling will undoubtedly stay firmly in place.

WHy it's vital to rectify workplace gender inequality 

As indicated, these practices of gender inequality are deeply unacceptable on human rights grounds alone. Yet there is also a strong business case to be made for rectifying this situation and making gender equality a key component of business-as-usual. 

Firstly, fostering a level playing field in the workplace creates a sense of certainty and loyalty among all staff. The subsequent improvement in staff retention reduces the costs and inconvenience of rehiring and retraining. It also creates a more harmonious corporate environment due to reduced staffing changes. 

And - as if these benefits to business weren't enough - workplace gender equality enables longitudinal corporate knowledge to be more easily captured and retained. 

devEloping a high-quality business reputation

Reputational benefits also flow to those organisations that actively embrace equality for women in the workplace. For example, the prestigious Employer of Choice Awards in Australia recognises and promotes businesses that demonstrate practical gains in workplace gender equality. Reputational gains lead to the attraction and retention of high quality staff. 

fostering gender equality in your workplace

Many organisations have the best of intentions when it comes to improving gender equality. However sometimes it can be challenging to know where to start. A workplace audit of current equality initiatives can help to pinpoint any gaps - particularly between lip service and actual practice. From here, robust policies for parental leave and support, career assistance and flexible work arrangements can form an excellent base for the improvement of workplace gender equality on the ground. 

A strong framework for workplace gender equality

Being a leader in workplace gender equality brings considerable gains in employee satisfaction, reputation and the bottom line. It also works to lessen the chances of expensive claims being made on the basis of alleged gender discrimination. 

At WISE Workplace, we pride ourselves on the assistance that we provide to employers in their pursuit of excellence. We have the experience and governance expertise to help organisations remedy risks and work towards excellence in workplace gender equality. Get in touch if you would like to discuss the best ways to create equality in the workplace for women - and indeed for all employees.

Learning HR Lessons from Real World Cases

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 30, 2019

In recent years, there have been a number of cases heard in the Fair Work Commission and the courts which have resulted in important practical outcomes and learnings for employers, particularly in the area of workplace bullying. 

Let's take a look at some of these seminal cases.

volunteers can pursue bullying claims

The decision in Ryan v Returned & Services League of Australia (Queensland Branch) [2018] FWC 761 demonstrates that volunteers who are unpaid are entitled to pursue claims of bullying in the workplace. 

In this case, there was some dispute as to whether RSL Queensland, for which Mr Ryan volunteered, was a 'person conducting a business or undertaking' and a 'constitutionally covered business', within the meaning set out in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011

The commission ultimately determined that Mr Ryan was clearly a 'worker' within the meaning of the WHS Act, and held that the Pension Advocacy and Welfare Services (for which Mr Ryan worked, and which was under the aegis of RSL Queensland), was a constitutionally covered business at all relevant times when Mr Ryan was performing volunteer work. On this basis, it was found that Mr Ryan had sufficient standing to pursue a bullying complaint against RSL Queensland.

employer's failure to consider mental health

In Wearne v State of Victoria [2017] VSC 25, the Supreme Court of Victoria determined that an employer could be in breach of its duty to prevent injury to employees in circumstances where an employee complained of bullying and the employer failed to act on the complaints. 

Of particular significance for the court was the fact that the employee had advised her employer some years before she ceased work that she was suffering from occupational stress, was 'anxious about any ongoing contact' with former colleagues and experienced stress as a result. 

In particular, the court concluded that the worker's employers had 'lost sight of the goal of creating a workplace environment that was safe for the [worker's] mental state and minimised the risk of psychiatric injury'

Recommendation of workplace culture improvement plan

The Fair Work Commission determined in Sheikh v Civil Aviation Safety Authority & Ors [2016] FWC 7039 that while the specific circumstances of the employee's workplace did not support a finding of workplace bullying, there was sufficient evidence to suggest that some sort of remedial or consequential action was required. 

Accordingly, the employer was to design and implement a workplace culture improvement plan, which should focus on interpersonal relationship training, the introduction of a facilitated workshop regarding acceptable norms of behaviour, and the development of an appropriate and agreed work allocation protocol.

age discrimination 

A fairly significant compensatory award of $31,420 was awarded to the complainant in the NSW decision of McEvoy v Acorn Stairlifts Pty Ltd [2017] NSWCATAD 273, following his allegations that his employment had been terminated when he was aged 62, because the worker had 'a bad back, bad hearing and was too old'.   

Although the company denied the worker's allegations, the NSW Civil & Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) found that the evidence suggested that it was 'more probable than not' that the worker was treated less favourably than he would have been if he had been younger.

reasonable management actions vs workplace bullying

In Ms SB [2014] FWC 2104, the Fair Work Commission considered what factors should be taken into account when determining whether an action was bullying or 'reasonable management behaviour'. 

An objective assessment must be made having regard to the circumstances and knowledge of those involved at the time, including what led to the management action, what occurred while it was in progress and what happened subsequently. Having regard to these factors, the Commission determined on this occasion that there was not sufficient evidence to support a finding of workplace bullying. 

It can be difficult for employers to interpret the findings and application of decisions made by the Fair Work Commission and various courts throughout Australia. If you require assistance in conducting workplace investigations, and making sound defensible findings, contact WISE today. 

Creating a Safe and Healthy Workplace For All

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Developing a positive working environment where all employees are supported is key to looking after the mental wellbeing of your staff, and freeing them up to be their most productive selves. 

A safe and healthy workplace is one which is inclusive and caters for the needs of all workers. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a two-fold approach where the development of long-term policies is coupled with direct support services for workers is most effective. 

Let's take a look at the elements of a positive workplace, how to minimise potential risks to the wellbeing of your workers and what types of policies are crucial. 

characteristics of a safe and healthy workplace

By taking steps to improve the working environment, not only is the office a more pleasant place for everybody to be, but the risk of workers suffering from or exacerbating a pre-existing mental health condition is reduced. 

A safe and healthy workplace is one that offers:

  • The opportunity for staff to take regular rest breaks.
  • Minimal requirements to work overtime or have too high a workload, or at the very least adequate division of labour to minimise the impact of excessive workload on staff. 
  • Workplace mentoring and support programs.
  • Flexible work hours where required. 

COmmitment to a strategy for creating a healthy working environment 

It is not simply enough to announce your intention to foster a supportive, healthy and safe workplace - instead, a proactive strategy needs to be designed and implemented. 

In practice, this is likely to include commitments from all areas of the business to:

  • Ensure that policies, mission statements and procedures are designed and published (and easily available to all staff)
  • Implement the strategies and ensure that the commitment is not simple lip service - for example, ensuring that flexible arrangements are actually offered, not just promised. 
  • Consult with workers as to what they consider are essential elements of a safe and healthy workplace. 

Minimising potential hazards and risks

When formulating strategies, it is important to consider whether there are any hazards or risks to the mental health of your staff that could derail the improvements being implemented. 

Risks to look out for include:

  • Poor management, including lack of control and a failure to provide recognition or reward.
  • Workplace conflict (whether between peers or in the chain of command). 
  • Bullying or harassment.
  • Excessive workloads and stress.

When staff are feeling overwhelmed because of difficulties with their work itself, the likelihood of having a healthy and safe workplace is far lower.  

proactive measures to achieve a healthy workplace

One of the most important elements of creating a safe and healthy workplace is having adequate policies and procedures in place. In practice, this will mean policies relating to:

  • A commitment to a safe and healthy working environment
  • Confidentiality, mental health training and general mental health guidelines
  • Anti-discrimination
  • Harassment and bullying
  • Reasonable adjustments to help workers who are struggling with mental health issues. 

By having these policies in place, and ensuring that they are adhered to, all staff are able to be supported and an inclusive workplace is encouraged. 

Where to get assistance

If you are interested in improving your workplace, we can help you formulate the right policies and procedures. Talk to our team today. 

Managing Mental Illness in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 17, 2018

What can employers do to support and effectively manage employees who may be struggling with their mental health?

With an estimated one in five Australian adults suffering from a mental illness in any given year, this is becoming an increasingly important question for organisations to answer. 

From talking to an employee with a mental illness to addressing performance concerns, here's how employers can help support workers with mental health issues. 

how to talk about mental illness with a worker? 

Employers can't be expected to be experts, but when speaking with an employee about a mental health issue, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of the condition in question. This might include any symptoms, specific terms that relate to the condition and types of medications the employee is likely to be prescribed. 

How conversations are framed is crucial - employers should refer to employees as 'having' mental health conditions, as opposed to 'being' schizophrenic or depressed. Employers should also understand the difference between episodic and chronic mental health issues. 

Prior to conversations with employees about their mental health, employers need to ensure that they are prepared, have planned what they wish to discuss and offered the employee the opportunity to bring a support person with them. Employers may also make use of the assistance of a qualified mental health professional when approaching these meetings. 

concerns regarding an employee's mental health

While a physical injury might be obvious, it can be much more difficult to determine if an employee is struggling with their mental health. It is important for employers to remember that there isn't always an obligation for employees to disclose their mental health status. 

In these circumstances, an employer concerned about an employee's mental health can speak confidentially with them and advise them that they may be able to access support from a formal Employee Assistance Program (EAP). The employer may also wish to ask whether there is anything that they can do to modify or improve the workplace to assist the staff member. 

what to say to other employees

If an affected employee has volunteered details of their mental illness, and has agreed to disclosure, employers may wish to sensitively and respectfully disseminate information about the specific condition, or even arrange for mental health specialists to attend the workplace and provide information. 

Employers must not breach an affected worker's privacy and disclose matters that are personal to them. On some occasions, however, an employee's mental health condition may potentially impact other colleagues, or health and safety and must be disclosed. 

When a disclosure has been made, employers need to ensure co-workers:

  • Are supported in relation to any increased workload arising from their colleague's absence;
  • Have their concerns addressed and discussed in an appropriate forum;
  • Are offered access to internal or external counselling services;
  • Are protected from possible harm. 

Making reasonable adjustments

Workers who are struggling with mental health issues may find that they are able to contribute in a much more substantial way if their employer is prepared to make reasonable adjustments. These could include:

  • Flexible working hours or working from home arrangements
  • Moving an employee's physical location (i.e. into a quieter area, closer to a window, away from a co-worker who is triggering their condition)
  • Permitting employees to record meetings or take electronic notes if they are concerned about their memory. 

Addressing performance concerns

When an employer has concerns about an employee's capacity or capability to perform their duties, it is appropriate to apply the organisation's standard performance management system, and provide support to assist the employee. This support should be offered regardless of whether or not the employee has disclosed a mental health condition. 

Employers should consider:

  • Personal circumstances that may contribute to a worker's performance issue, as would be the case for all workers; 
  • Whether a mental illness may be contributing to the poor performance;
  • The seriousness of the performance concern (as for more serious matters, such as violence, there may be no option but to take strong disciplinary action regardless of whether there is a reason, such as a mental illness); 
  • Whether the performance concern relates to a key part of the job or whether reasonable adjustments can be made;
  • Encourage and enable the worker to discuss the performance concerns and whether there are any health issues that may have impacted on their performance. 

If the concern doesn't resolve and the adjustments don't work, employers may need to revisit the issue at a later date. 

If you'd like more information, check out our series of articles on this topic, starting with Mental Health in the Workplace. WISE can also assist with drafting and implementing policies and guidelines around disclosure, reasonable adjustments and speaking to colleagues about mental health.

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.