Dealing with Absconding Staff over Christmas

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Christmas period tends to bring out the best- and worst - in people. It is a time of year filled with parties, merriment, laughter, great weather and a lot of socialising. 

But Christmas can also be a challenging time in the workplace, as employees may engage in inappropriate conduct at work related social events, may suffer the after-effects of excessive partying or may be generally less productive or effective than usual. 

It can also result in staff not turning up altogether. We take a look at what employers should do if staff abscond from their roles over the end of year period.

Absenteeism, absconding and desertion: what's the difference? 

Many workers may be tempted to add to their public holidays by taking additional days off after Christmas, especially if they feel that they have been unfairly denied leave over the Festive Season. 

Workers 'pulling sickies' without consent is a type of absenteeism. In order to avoid situations where staff are calling in sick for less than legitimate reasons, employers should remind staff that the usual sick leave policies apply over Christmas. 

Employees must obtain doctor's certificates or other acceptable evidence of genuine illness, even though it may be an inconvenient time for them to do so. It should also be reiterated that failing to attend work after key social functions - such as the annual Christmas party - will be frowned upon and could result in disciplinary consequences. 

Unauthorised leave is a serious enough matter, but what happens if the absence drags on? An employee 'absconds' from work in circumstances where they have been absent, without explanation, for sufficiently long that the employer is entitled to infer that they have no intention of returning. This would apply if the employee has failed to attend for a number of days, without making contact with the employer (who has been unable to make contact in return). 

In cases of desertion, an employee implicitly or explicitly demonstrates that they have no intention of returning to work. Advising co-workers that they will not come back from leave, emptying their work station of personal belongings, and failing to respond to attempts to contact them are all signs of desertion.  

what steps should an employer take?

Although it is generally clear by implication that an employee has no intention of returning to work, employers must still follow due dismissal procedures to ensure that the employee is terminated correctly and fairly. 

This requires several documented attempts to contact the employee. Initial contact should be by phone, followed up by written correspondence notifying that the employee's position will be terminated if they do not explain their actions and return to work immediately. Written correspondence should be sent both to a personal email if possible, and the employee's registered postal address.

what the fair work commission says

A Fair Work Commission decision handed down in January 2018 noted that an employee's absence from work, without consent or notification, for three working days or more constituted sufficient evidence of abandonment. 

If an employee has not provided a satisfactory explanation for their absence within 14 days of their last attendance at work, an employee will be deemed to have formally abandoned their employment and their position will be considered to have been duly terminated. 

why do employees abscond?  

Although the reasons for employees absconding are many and varied, some examples are:

  • They have obtained employment elsewhere (and accordingly do not feel that they have any need for positive references);
  • They are dealing with personal issues which exceed their desire or ability to be present at work over the holiday period; 
  • They feel that they have engaged in particularly embarrassing or career limiting behaviours over the festive season. 

In particular, the Christmas period often makes people re-evaluate their life decisions and take stock of what they want (and don't want) in the New Year. Terminating a working situation that doesn't suit them, could potentially be at the top of their list. 

How to keep staff engaged and avoid staff going AWOL

Although most organisations strive to be an employer of choice throughout the year, it is important for staff to be reminded at the end of the year that they are valued, and their hard work has been appreciated. 

Celebrate the achievements of the past year, and if appropriate, reward staff with a festive bonus. Organisations should also strive to offer a fun, slightly more relaxed environment over the festive season. This might include offering extra snacks in staff common areas, and holding informal social events. This can carry over into the New Year, to help ease the way back into work. Another suggestion is to allow staff to dress casually in January and keep things fun with a holiday photo competition or barbecue lunch. 

Employers should approach the festive season proactively, reminding staff of the conduct expected of them, and the requirements around leave during this period. If your organisation encounters an issue with staff, WISE investigates matters of misconduct and can assist in establishing the facts. Contact us for an obligation-free investigation quote.  

How to Prepare for a Difficult Conversation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Engaging in a difficult workplace conversation is one of those tasks that most managers and business owners would prefer to avoid. Yet the reality is that from time to time, workplace behaviour or performance will be below par and will need to be addressed. 

The key to conducting a challenging conversation at work that is both professional and productive lies in thorough preparation - the three W's of when, where, and what.

WHen is the best time to have the conversation?

Timing is everything when preparing to discuss a difficult issue. Ask yourself a deceptively simple question - why am I instigating this particular conversation right now? If the answer is that you are annoyed, aggravated or otherwise emotionally charged by an employee's behaviour or performance, then this can often be a bad time to attempt a challenging conversation. 

Difficult conversations that are planned and delivered in a calm and considered manner have a much greater chance of producing desired outcomes. Conversely, conversations that are started impulsively, out of anger or frustration can often lead to later accusations of abuse and unfairness. This is particularly so where no warnings or offers of support are given. 

Putting difficult conversations off indefinitely is not productive either. This may create the impression that the conduct is tolerated or accepted. So, ask yourself - is now the right time?

where should i hold the difficult conversation? 

Much like timing, you should carefully prepare the venue for these challenging work conversations. One golden rule is - not in front of a worker's colleagues. Entering a work station and immediately delivering difficult words can be seen as disrespectful or even as an abuse of power. 

In some workplaces, it might be best to email the worker and request that they come to your office or a designated neutral space. Depending upon the gravity of the topic of discussion, it might also be suggested that the worker bring along a support person. 

When you are anxious about the need to have a difficult conversation, you might prefer to just go for it on the spot and begin, but take a deep breath and ensure that the venue is appropriate.

what is the topic of the difficult conversation?

This again might seem like a question that has a simple answer. It might seem obvious to you that the problem is bad performance, bad behaviour - or both. Such general labels however can appear to be an attack on the person, with no real way for them to reply in a meaningful way. And broad admonitions to 'shape up or ship out' are not only unproductive performance guidance - they can be seen as real threats to a worker's employment and do not meet the requirements of reasonable management action. 

Try to have a basic agenda prepared and distil the 'what' of the discussion into two or three clear and succinct points. 

For example, the conversation might cover a tangible issue such as the three late starts since last Thursday; the 30% dip in sales since June; the four separate reports of disrespectful behaviour in the workplace. Specificity assists in driving a conversation that is fair, transparent and likely to deliver a sustainable outcome. 

Choose words which are neutral and not emotionally laden. Avoid descriptive words such as appalling, dreadful, bad or shocking. Try to be rational, measured and neutral in your language and approach. If you are able to deliver a clear and rational statement of what the employee has failed to do or what they have done wrong and invited a response, you are well on your way to having an open discussion and finding a resolution. 

And lastly - listen! A conversation, by definition, involves two or more people. Don't be tainted by pre-judgement.

DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS AS PART OF THE PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT PROCESS 

Humans avoid conflict. We are community-based creatures and prefer to have things just tick along nicely. Yet these difficult conversations are important, having the overall goal of improving performance, getting to the bottom of troubling issues and smoothing the rougher edges of behaviour. 

Acting in anger is inadvisable, as are publicly-heard conversations and sweeping accusations. Clear guidelines for such communication should be set out in the organisation's policies and procedures, with training and resources available to assist. 

Should your difficult conversation form part of a performance management process, make sure that you are adhering to your organisations' relevant policies and procedures. This may include drafting a performance improvement plan if informal performance counselling is not effective. 

Without these structures, organisations are left open to complaints of unfairness or a failure to take reasonable management action. 

Expert help in getting it right

The reality is that difficult conversations are inevitable in the workplace, and it is important that they are conducted well. At WISE, we specialise in the management of workplace behaviour. We can investigate matters of misconduct, resolve conflict through mediation and provide consultation services for effective people governance. Call us at any time to discuss your requirements.  

Overcoming Unconscious Bias

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 07, 2018

When conducting investigations or otherwise making determinations in the workplace, it is essential to avoid bias, whether conscious or unconscious. It is equally important to avoid a situation where co-workers believe decisions made in the workplace are biased - whether real or perceived.

What is unconscious bias? 

Unconscious bias may take a number of different forms, including:

  • Preferring or tending to support people who are similar to us (for example, people who attended the same high school, or who share the same ethnic background or sexual preference)
  • 'The beer test', also known as the 'in group' versus the 'out group' - having a bias in favour of people you would enjoy spending time with yourself.
  • The halo effect - where a specific characteristic or attribute of a person dominates impressions formed about that person. For example, if somebody is physically attractive this may increase their inherent like-ability, without merit. 
  • Confirmation bias - effectively, making judgements which support existing, previously held beliefs. 

For investigators, objectivity and drawing reasonable and unbiased conclusions is an essential component of a fair investigation. This doesn't alter the fact that everybody has unconscious biases. In order to remain neutral, investigators should take careful stock of what those biases may be for them specifically and ensure that they do not allow bias to influence their analysis of a party's credibility or their ultimate conclusions.

the effects of bias 

From an investigator's perspective, a failure to be objective may mean that they have subconsciously drawn premature conclusions about the outcome of the investigation. 

A common example involves a situation where a senior executive has been accused of serious wrongdoing, and the investigator understands that the removal or significant disciplining of the executive is likely to result in immediate negative effects for the business. 

Against that background, the investigator may be more likely to conduct the investigation in such a way that it justifies a decision which has already been made - namely that the executive will not be terminated or otherwise harshly disciplined. 

It is incumbent on impartial investigators to seek to uncover all facts that will help them determine the credibility of the parties involved, and assist in reaching a fair conclusion. It is equally important for investigators to remember that all evidence (however unpalatable) uncovered during an investigation must be taken into account in making a final determination, regardless of whether the information supports or contradicts the allegations. 

what is best practice?

Forming an inherent bias is a completely natural human response. It is important to ensure, however, that it does not lead or alter the outcome of an investigation. To this end, strategies for preventing inherent bias include:

  • Scheduling 'interrupters' - these are regular pauses in the process which are designed to force a decision-maker to step back and take an overview of how they have progressed with the investigation, as well as consciously consider whether they are being influenced by bias or not. 
  • Ensuring that the investigator's approach is as transparent as possible, and ideally an investigator should not be required to investigate people with whom they have ties. 

what can employers do?

Employers need to facilitate open and honest communication about the potential of bias affecting a decision-making process. This includes ensuring that all staff who are likely to conduct investigations or make sensitive decisions are aware of the potential impacts of bias, and take steps to avoid it. 

Another important stratagem is to ensure that investigators are not required to conduct investigations involving those with whom they have a prior relationship, to avoid any perception of bias. 

Investigations are an important tool for companies dealing with breaches of policy misconduct. If an employee views a process as fair and unbiased they will be more likely to report concerns. If you think there is an issue in your workplace and are concerned about potential or perceived bias, WISE can conduct independent and unbiased investigations. Contact us today for an obligation-free cost estimate.  

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.  

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.  

Why Forced Mediations are Doomed to Fail

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Mediation can offer effective resolution of workplace disputes. It's a fair process that allows parties to be heard and encourages them to find a resolution both sides are satisfied with. 

Mediation should only be used when parties are willing to discuss their differences. In the case of a bullying complaint, an investigation is required in the first instance, to determine whether there is an active grievance or complaint afoot, causing one of the parties to feel unsafe in the workplace. 

Forcing an unwilling employee to the mediation table can lead to resentment and even legal action. 

How does mediation work?

In mediation, a third party facilitates an open discussion between two parties to help settle a dispute rather than going to court. Both sides are encouraged to reach an acceptable compromise. For employers, the idea is to resolve a dispute quickly and economically. 

while there are pros and cons for mediation, one positive is that a verdict is never 'handed down' but rather, the parties come to the decision together. It's an empowering process, giving the parties input into the outcome. 

The advantage of mediation is that disputes can be reexamined and reframed in order to find the appropriate solution. It's a flexible process that can be tailored to the needs of the players involved. 

A key aspect though, is that all parties need to act in good faith, and be open to discussion and negotiation. If mediation is forced upon an employee, they are likely to feel that the process isn't fair, leading to resentment, a difficult negotiation and disagreement with the outcome. 

Can an employer compel an employee to attend mediation?

While an employer can enforce mediation, and take disciplinary action if an employee fails to attend, there must be grounds to do so, and these grounds must be established. Without grounds, an employer may be left open to a claim of adverse action or victimisation. 

It's important in these situations, however, to carefully consider the reasons why the employee may not wish to be part of mediation. For example, they may fear a power imbalance or bias against them or may feel unsafe in their workplace, due to a bullying complaint which has not been addressed. 

Outlining the process: the role of the mediator

A mediator is appointed to facilitate the process. The mediator does not provide legal advice, nor do they offer legal counsel. A neutral third party, the mediator's role is not to make a decision, but to encourage the parties to come to their own, mutually agreed-upon resolution. 

In most cases, the mediator will make an opening statement and then give each party the opportunity to do the same. During this time, each party will share why they have agreed to the mediation and what they would like to achieve from it. This is not the time to air grievances. 

Just as a meeting is kept on track with an agenda, it's best to have a mediation meeting framework in place to ensure all steps are taken care of and all issues are dealt with accordingly. The agenda should be clearly spelt out and followed. The mediator will help determine what should and shouldn't be discussed and it's the mediator's role to keep the discussion on track. 

During the mediation, private sessions may also be helpful so parties can refresh and refuel. The mediator will meet with the individual parties one at a time to discuss how they are feeling. This process may be repeated if necessary. 

Once each agenda item has been addressed and discussed, a decision will be mutually agreed upon. The mediator will review, finalise and capture the agreement in writing. 

Approaching mediation

Asking an employee to mediate their grievance is a reasonable request - after all, restoring the peace between employees is important for business, and ensuring employees relations are happy and healthy is paramount. 

However, mediation will only work if the parties truly want to mediate. This means they want to come to an agreement together, and there's no possible reason why one party may be afraid or uncomfortable during the process. 

Forced mediation is not likely to be effective, as it is one-sided. 

When expert assistance is required

If the parties cannot find agreement on all agenda items, or there are behavioural concerns, it may be necessary to explore possible resolution options with an experienced external workplace mediator. 

If you need some support in how to conduct a mediation, need to engage a mediator, or would like to resolve a workplace conflict, contact WISE

Managing Relationships in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Anyone who has been following the news recently will be aware that scandalous sexual relationships in the workplace have become something of a common theme. 

The stories of Seven West Chief Executive, Tim Worner and his former executive assistant (a relationship which ended in legal action), the forced resignations of senior AFL executives over their relationships with younger staff, and the notorious pregnancy of former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce's staffer have all been highly publicised. 

The ironic fallout of Mr Joyce's relationship is the so-called "bonk ban", instituted by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. That ban is intended to prevent all relationships between ministers and their staff, and presumably avoid another scenario such as Mr Joyce's extra-martial affair. 

But is this something which employers can actually impose? Particularly in circumstances where many romantic relationships are forged in the workplace?

can employer prohibit relationships in the workplace?

Although it is virtually unheard of for blanket bans on all relationships to be imposed in any workplace, it is not uncommon for disclosure policies to be introduced. 

The intention of such policies is to require staff members to disclose sexual relationships which could result in a conflict of interest, for example when the relationship is between a supervisor and their subordinate.

Such a code of conduct is designed to manage situations where the interests of the business may be in direct conflict with the romantic or personal interests of the employees. 

Actual conflicts of interest vs perceived conflict of interest

Arguably any relationship in the workplace - not necessarily even a romantic one - could lead to a conflict, particularly when the relationship falls apart or ends badly. This can result in staff feeling unable to work together or believing that they are being victimised by their former lover or friend. 

However, it is important to understand the difference between an actual conflict, and a perceived conflict. 

The Fair Work Commission's decision of Mihalopoulos v Westpac Banking Corporation [2015] FWC 2087 illustrates the difference. In this case, a Westpac bank manager was dismissed from his role due to his conduct arising out of his relationship with one of the bank's employees. 

According to Westpac, Mr Mihalopoulos was dismissed because he was dishonest about his relationship with the worker, breached an apprehended violence order imposed by the worker (after the relationship ended) and inappropriately discussed details of their relationship with his subordinates. 

During the course of the hearing, Mr Mihalopoulos admitted that he had put forward his lover for promotions while they were in a relationship, despite denying their relationship to superiors. 

The Fair Work Commission ultimately determined that employers were entitled to expect that their workers were honest about the nature of relationships that had formed, so that any conflicts of interest arising from these relationships could be managed. 

Further, Mr Mihalopoulos' ongoing and repeated dishonesty about the circumstances of his relationship meant that the business was not in a position to appropriately manage conflicts and therefore manage its own risk. Accordingly, Mr Mihalopoulos' unfair termination application was ultimately dismissed. 

How can relationships be managed in the workplace?

In order to manage the minefield of personal relationships in the workplace, Human Resources departments should ensure that both conflict of interest and disclosure policies are in place, which employees should sign up to as part of their terms of employment. 

Once a disclosure has been made, the conflict of interest policy should provide steps to be taken to minimise ongoing risks to the business. For example, staff might be reassigned to different supervisors to ensure that appropriate disciplinary action can still be taken. 

It is critical not only that these policies exist but that they are clearly communicated to all staff, and that staff are made aware of the potential consequences of failing to adhere to these policies, including redeployment or dismissal. 

If you need assistance in managing workplace relationships at your organisation, contact us. Our team can help formulate policies around disclosure and conflict of interest, and can investigate allegations of misconduct.