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Could mental health cost business millions?

16 September 2014

With news reports saying that sexual harassment claims are on the rise, and the figures paid out in compensation are also growing, alongside recent news of a Victorian teacher’s stress claim resulting in a record sum, is this a sign to employers to take more care of employees’ mental health?

Last week reports emerged that a Victorian teacher had received around $1m compensation as a result of a successful claim for stress related injury caused by a heavy workload of difficult to teach classes. The teacher suffered a breakdown after he was bullied, threatened and abused by students in his classes over a period of five years.

Supreme Court Justice, Timothy Ginnane found that the teacher’s employer had breached its duty of care because it did not reduce the number of difficult classes allocated to the teacher nor monitor the teacher or offer him adequate support.

The damages awarded are particularly high for a case of this kind and may attract more claims from those who have suffered psychological injury due to work-related factors such as high stress levels, extreme workloads and workplace bullying.

Workplace

A successful appeal in July where a manager received $130,000 to be paid by her employer for pain and suffering she experienced as a result of workplace sexual harassment also marked an increase in the compensation awarded for claims of this type. The Sydney Morning Herald has further reported that it is not only the payouts that are rising, but the number of sexual harassment complaints is growing too.

It appears that workers themselves are becoming more aware of their options when issues such as bullying and harassment at work cause problems. Together with the courts’ apparent recognition of the significant suffering and detriment to mental health which may occur as a result of extreme stress, workplace bullying or sexual harassment, this is a clear sign that employers must take action.

There are many steps employers can take to create “mentally healthy” workplaces. In terms of appropriate behaviour, these range from providing comprehensive workplace bullying and harassment training to introducing “Contact Officers” – trained team members who act as the first point of contact for workers who need to discuss behavioural matters but may not wish to approach their manager.

Of course making sure policies and procedures are comprehensive and up to date is important but employers may also wish to have a values statement or code of conduct which forms part of the policy handbook and gives plain English guidance on attitude and behaviour. This can be developed with input from employees to create better ‘buy-in’.

Regular, effective performance management is also important, not only to keep track of employees’ progress but also to help identify risks such as heavy workloads, skills gaps and under-resourcing. These may not only affect an employee’s performance but could also create unnecessary levels of stress and anxiety when not managed.

iHR Australia offers workplace training programs including bullying and harassment, Contact Officer and performance management training. All our programs use our Workplace Reality Theatre methodology where actors bring the training to life. For details or to register call 1300 884 687 or make an online enquiry.

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