Bullying and Stress in Public Service

Stress ProfesionalsPublic servants make over 4000 serious workers compensation claims each year in Australia, with stress and bullying claims the fastest growth area.

The trend continues despite the fact Australia has legislated that it is against the law to injure or harm an employee.

After decades of occupational health and safety training we still rely on mandatory safety questions in many agencies’ appointment processes, despite knowing any switched-on public servant will lie about the degree to which their values mirror those of the organisation.

Current screening and on-the-job training isn’t enough and its costing governments billions according to Safe Work Australia estimates.

The cost of dealing with claims due to bad safety behaviour is skyrocketing, even as the total number of injuries has slightly declined over the past decade. Safe Work Australia figures put the estimated cost in Australia at $7 billion in compensation each year borne by employers, and the overall cost of injuries and illness in a single year at $60 billion.

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Safety Concepts is an online resource providing up to date insights and covering issues in the field of Workplace Safety.

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  1. The 4000 claims would only represent the tip of the iceberg in my view. Unfortunately, and I have to rely on what I have read and what has been said to me over the years, is that it appears that there are more potential claimants out there who for various reasons have not and will not lodge in a claim.

    It seems that for some, the ability to pay a mortgage, put food on the table and pay bills overrides any compensatory award made from a work cover claim. In addition, some may have been of the belief that they would have been entitled to compensation through FWA.

    In some cases, the degree of seriousness that should be afforded to workplace bullying may not exist because awards or compensation have in the past not been significantly large.

    Workplace hazards or factors that contribute to workplace are sometimes ignored, or accepted as the way of doing business e.g. negative leadership manifested through micromanagement.

    I suspect that the real truth about the level of claims is not known given that when a target may approach a support person, they can be ‘talked out’ of progressing. For some, decisions to take action are weighed up against personal economic situations and whether or not they will be victimised etc for making a claim. Experience tells me that there is a bit of both when the decision made.

    When ‘bullying’ survey results are published, it appears that the rate of bullying is increasing. However, that is not translating into workplace claims. It could well be the case there are a substantial number of inquiries about courses of action available for a target, and when the implications are understood, no further action is taken, hence the perception that people are ‘talked out’ of making a complaint.

    Whilst it does appear that there is a certain amount of ‘hype’ associated with bullying, the reality is that some of the behaviours will trigger a workplace death. It may be the case that in some deaths, there is sufficient dissassociation that the workplace will argue it is not work related, but that depends on the investigation.

    I had a discussion with a public servant recently regarding values and they were struggling to understand how they could ensure that the employees adopted the public service values. Based on what I have seen over the years, when one person or organisation tries to force their values onto another, problems arise. The secret lies in aligning the organisational and individual values.

    The concerning part about creating a set of values is when the workplace culture is significantly different to what is being espoused. For example, the apparent stated mandate that ‘workers are to fully support their manager and their decisions even if they do not agree with them. In another example, a group of employees were gathered for a send off (group redundancies) when a senior manager told one of the group, “Don’t write a book”.

    On one hand, there may be a public service mantra about values when in reality, there is something different happening.

    Most people go to work to do a fair day’s work in return for an appropriate reward. Along the way, they expect to be treated with respect and dignity, to be provided with coaching, support, mentoring, assistance, guidance, to be informed and consulted about issues that impact on them, to be provided with an opportunity to have input about improvements, to be provided with learning and development opportunities, to be acknowledged and be accepted for who they are.

    They don’t go to work to be kept in the dark, to be driven to breaking point, to be subjected to ridicule and derision about their work capabilities, to be ignored, to be devalued or treated differently because of who they are, they don’t expect to be labelled as whingers, malcontents or bludgers when they lodge a WorkCover Claim, and certainly don’t expect to be victimised, threatened or harassed because they have lodged a claim.

    Am I surprised about the number of claims lodged? Not really. What I would be really concerned about is the apparent number who should have lodged claims but have not do so to date. I suspect that for some, they are just biding their time, and when they feel safe, they will do so. By then it will be too late for their organisation, be it the public or private sector.

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