Colleauges gossiping with sad businesswoman in foregroundWith National Mental Health Week starting in less than 10 days (9-15 October 2016), it is timely to consider the responsibilities of employers in managing the WHS risks to their workers that can occur in the area of mental health, over and above physical health.

As discussed in Insight issue 63, mental health is an increasingly recognised WHS risk, however many employers still find it challenging to realise that they are also responsible for their workers’ mental health and safety.

Factors impacting on mental health that arise from a particular worker’s personal circumstances may be very difficult to even identify, let alone provide assistance with, although there are strategies and processes that can be effective (refer Insight issue 63).

However, a more obvious source of psychosocial risks in the workplace, that is well within the purview of employers and supervisors to take responsibility for, is bullying and/or harassment.

Bullying or harassment is a distressingly common experience for workers in organisations of all types. Safe Work Australia’s recently revised Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying lists the likely impacts of bullying in the workplace:

  • On the individual:
    • distress, anxiety, panic attacks or sleep disturbance
    • physical illness, for example muscular tension, headaches, fatigue and digestive problems
    • loss of self-esteem and self-confidence
    • feelings of isolation
    • deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family and friends
    • negative impact on work performance, concentration and decision making ability
    • depression
    • thoughts of suicide
  • On the organisation:
    • high staff turnover and associated recruitment and training costs
    • low morale and motivation
    • increased absenteeism
    • lost productivity
    • disruption to work when investigations are undertaken into complaints
    • costs associated with counselling, mediation and support
    • costly workers’ compensation claims or legal action
    • damage to the reputation of the business

Harassment is fundamentally similar to bullying but involves an element of discrimination (based on gender, race, ethnic background, colour, religion or belief, sexual orientation or disability), and has a similar range of impacts as bullying.

A range of strategies for the prevention of bullying (or harassment) are also outlined in the Safe Work Australia Guide, ranging from management commitment to set the standard for workplace behaviour, providing training and information, designing safe systems of work and implementing reporting and response procedures.

In the context of slowly-increasing gender equality in Australian workplaces, where women are becoming steadily more likely to occupy positions of authority over their male colleagues, recent research suggests that gender-based harassment can have an underlying societal element that requires even more careful consideration of prevention and management strategies.

The study (conducted in the public sector, but suggested by the author to be as or more likely to apply to private sector workplaces) found that sexual harassment was used by men against women in positions of authority, as a means to penalise them for perceived gender nonconformity.

Such a finding increases the importance of developing appropriate organisational policies and training that reflect the full range of harassment experiences, including procedures to allow women to report harassment while protecting their authority.

Please contact QRMC for more information.