High statistics around stress and fear as a result of an alleged workplace incident
Investigation Key Statistics: Edition 5
iHR Australia conduct independent investigations for a wide range of organisations. We have compiled a collection of statistics to track trends in the workplace. These key statistics give valuable insights into areas of concern that can influence your business.
iHR Australia’s Business and Counselling Psychologist and Training Facilitator, Steven Booker provides some valuable insights into how to identify and manage stress caused by an alleged incident in the workplace.
What are some of the signs of stress caused by an alleged incident?
Because the outcome of an investigation has the potential to impact the participants’ team relationships, duties and in some cases their ongoing employment, it is not surprising that investigations can be a major source of stress. This is true even when the investigation is conducted accurately and in a timely fashion. It is also true that the stress an investigation can cause may affect not only the complainants/respondents, but in some cases witnesses, other team members, the HR professionals/managers overseeing the investigation, and even investigators.
Some common signs of stress arising from investigations can include:
- rumination (intrusive thinking) about the investigation (e.g. the inability to stop thinking about it, even when trying to)
- negative moods (e.g. anger, sadness, frustration)
- being more reactive than usual (e.g. getting angry or “triggered” by little things, or overreacting to small problems)
- sleep difficulty or nightmares
- unexplained pains (e.g. headache, sore back, muscle tension with no obvious physical cause)
- loss of enjoyment of life and work (e.g. not experiencing the usual happiness or welcome distraction from work, hobbies or entertainment)
- burn out and reduced performance, engagement, communication, motivation and/or satisfaction at work
In more serious cases, stress arising from investigations can significantly reduce a person’s functioning at work or home. Examples of this could include:
- worrying about the investigation so much that the employee is unable to sleep, and therefore can’t come to work, or focus on tasks, the following day
- panic attacks (e.g. hyperventilating, feeling dizzy/fainting, feeling of impending doom)
- post-traumatic stress symptoms (e.g. anxiety triggered by people, places or conversations that directly or indirectly remind the person of the investigation or incidents leading up to it)
- depressive symptoms (e.g. feelings of exhaustion, hopelessness, negative self-evaluation, apathy)
How should stress resulting from an alleged behaviour be managed?
It’s important to keep in mind that the stress which can arise from investigations is often more than the usual stress employees experience in their normal duties. Just because an employee is generally fit for work from a psychological perspective, it cannot necessarily be assumed that it is safe for them to be exposed to the additional stress of an investigation.
This is a complex issue and employers are strongly recommended to seek professional advice. However, as a general principle, if there is any suggestion that an employee may be at risk of developing or exacerbating a diagnosable mental ill-health condition as a result of an investigation, the employer should address that risk prior to requiring the employee to participate in the investigation. This usually involves obtaining advice from the employee’s treating mental health professional confirming they are fit to participate in the investigation.
Secondly: it’s a good idea for the employer to appoint someone as a point of contact for all investigation participants if they feel stress or are worried about the investigation. This should be someone who is not involved in conducting, participating in, or overseeing the investigation. For example, in larger organisations, it may be a manager or HR professional from an area of the business that is not involved in the investigation. In a smaller company, it may be an owner. The role of this “contact officer” is not to discuss the investigation (which will be confidential), but to be there for employees who may want or need to have an R U OK conversation as a result of stress from the investigation.
Third: investigations that are not conducted in a timely, fair or accurate way tend to cause a lot more stress. Plan the investigation to minimise as much stress as possible. Do it quickly but accurately. Give people reasonable time to respond to allegations. Follow the laws of procedural fairness, and any investigation policy your company may have.
What sort of supports can an organisation offer a staff member who is experiencing stress resulting from and alleged behaviour?
Remember that while investigations need to be conducted confidentially, and this may prevent you discussing the specifics of the investigation with an employee, it does not mean that you cannot have any contact with them, even just to ask R U OK? If you see someone struggling during an investigation, reach out, ask R U OK and work with them to get help if you think they need it.
For organisations with an employee assistance program (EAP), this can involve providing all participants with the EAP’s contact details and encouraging them to call, even just to discuss how they feel about the investigation. They do not need to have a mental ill-health issue to benefit from such a discussion. If you are particularly concerned about a particular employee, you can ask for their consent to have the EAP contact them proactively, and then provide the EAP with their contact number. If your organisation does not have an EAP, encourage employees you are concerned about to speak with their GP. The GP can refer the employee to counselling in the Medicare system if they consider it appropriate.
Finally, don’t be surprised if investigation participants experience a decrease in performance, engagement, communication, motivation and/or satisfaction at work during the investigation. Where possible, consider lightening their duties / hours of work during the investigation. This will not only allow them to prepare any statements / evidence they need to submit, but also help to reduce their stress to some extent.