When we talk about workplace injury and workers’ compensation the obvious comes to mind: injuries caused by falls and collisions, being hit by objects, repetitive strain injury, cuts, abrasions and burns, inhaling toxic fumes, and exposure to other harmful factors such as excessive noise.
The unspoken – but ever-escalating – workplace injury scenario, however, is bullying and sexual harassment, according to Denise Chesworth, Director of Perth City Legal.
Chesworth stated that over the past 12 to 18 months there has been an increase in the number of enquiries from both men and women who are being bullied in the workplace and a significant increase in enquiries from men and woman who are being sexually harassed in the workplace.
Bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace is pervasive and underreported.
“As a lawyer dealing with clients who have been subjected to these offensive behaviours I see the effects on the individual and their families and it can be devastating,” Chesworth said.
“Many clients not only suffer from psychological symptoms of depression but also report a decline in their general health. Some clients also report and a breakdown of the family unit.”
Chesworth stated clients often suffer in silence for long periods of time.
“They feel helpless, isolated and unsupported,” she said.
“They don’t report bullying or sexual harassment in the workplace because they believe their complaint will not be treated seriously, there is a lack of formal reporting procedures and support, or they fear they may lose their job.
“Employers have a legal liability to prevent bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace.
“Failing to put in place appropriate steps to minimise the risk of these behaviours occurring is financially detrimental to employers due to high levels of staff turnover, lower productivity and defending claims.”
Bullying and sexual harassment can happen in any type of workplace, and to people in any type of role – from front-line employees through to CEOs. In 2010, the Productivity Commission found that bullying at work costs Australian organisations between $6 billion and $36 billion a year in lost productivity.
It can take many forms, from verbal or physical abuse, overloading a person with work or not providing enough work, lack of support or deliberately excluding or isolating a worker.
Sexual harassment in the workplace can be written, verbal or physical. It includes unwelcome touching or contact without your consent, asking for sex or sexual favours, questions about your sex life or making comments about your body.
Chesworth believes that the increase in the number of enquiries by victims of bullying and sexual harassment is due to the “me too” campaign which “has empowered a lot of men and woman to speak out about their experiences and many are looking to seek legal redress”.
There are a number of legal avenues available if your employer has not taken steps to address your complaints or have disregarded your complaints:
• State and Federal anti-discrimination law including anti sexual harassment legislation
• Anti-bullying provisions in the Fair Work legislation
• Unfair dismissal provisions of the Fair Work legislation
• General protections/adverse action provisions of the Fair Work legislation
• Workplace health and safety legislation
• Workers’ compensation schemes
• Civil claims including breach of contract
• Criminal claims
“Our clients who suffer from workplace stress tell us that the incidents in the workplace which cause them to become unwell have been occurring for many months and, in some cases, as long as a year,” said Chesworth.
“As a result their work begins to suffer and they are then placed on performance management or given written warnings.
“If you believe your workplace is making you unwell, you should keep a diary of all incidents in the workplace that you believe are causing you to become unwell, including dates and the names of the people involved.
“If you do report the incidents to your employer, keep a diary of what was said.
“Speak to your treating doctor and get it on record with your doctor as early as possible. You might not be intending to make a claim when you speak to your doctor, but the information provided is very important should you later decide to make a claim.
“If you do make a claim for workplace stress your claim is likely to be pended [meaning that the application is being processed].
“At the time the claim is pended you might be asked to provide a statement to an insurance investigator. We recommend you decline to provide a statement to the insurance investigator.
“It is our experience that some of the questions you might be asked by the insurance investigator are intrusive and not relevant to your claim, but your responses to those questions might be used by the workers’ compensation insurer to decline the claim.
“The law limits stress claims and many factors which cause stress are excluded from the workers’ compensation scheme.
“If your work environment is causing you to become unwell, you have made a claim and the claim is pended, you should seek legal advice immediately.”