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Occupational Health & Safety

The right way to handle a bullying or harassment complaint according to SafeWork NSW

29 Oct 2021, by Amy Sarcevic

As a manager or director of a large corporation, what would you do if you received an employee complaint about bullying or harassment within your team? For most people, the answer is the same: forward the matter to human resources, where an investigation will decide whether the accused person has breached the company’s Code of Conduct and, if yes, how might they be sanctioned. While this approach is not wrong, Ian Firth of SafeWork NSW says it is only part of the action companies are required to take by law.

“There is often confusion about how to manage instances of bullying and harassment within the workplace,” said Ian ahead of the Safety in Action conference, hosted by Informa Connect.

“It’s certainly important for HR to conduct an investigation into the allegations. But equally important is for the bullying to be treated as a Work Health & Safety (WHS) issue, and subject to a WHS investigation. In other words, has the complainant or other workers been harmed psychosocially? If so, how badly; and what has caused it?”

Failing to identify these factors in the bullying management process could result in a psychosocial injury being left untreated, and others exposed to harm – not an effective approach to managing WHS risk, Ian said.

“Often, companies don’t realise a person making a bullying or harassment complaint has been exposed to a psychosocial hazard until a workers’ compensation claim has been made. It’s really important to manage harm at the time of the complaint and throughout the investigation,” said Ian.

Preventing psychosocial hazards

In a similar vein, companies are required to take preventative measures in managing psychosocial risk in the workplace. Typically, company policies over-emphasise early intervention and recovery and neglect the first phase of their WHS obligations: prevention, said Ian.

“A lot of companies have introduced measures like EAP, mental health first aid training and stigma reduction or awareness raising programs like ‘RUOK day’. This is great, but these fall under the ‘early intervention’ phase. To actively prevent harm from psychosocial hazards companies need to implement a risk management process – identifying psychosocial hazards and putting measures in place to mitigate them,” he said.

To help WHS duty-holders with the ‘prevention’ phase, SafeWork NSW and the other state regulators have developed an online tool called People at Work. The free resource helps Australian companies assess psychosocial hazards in relation to eight key high-risk areas:

1. Job demand – the level of physical, mental and emotional effort required to do a job

2. Job control– the level of control a worker has over aspects of their work including how or when a job is done

3. Support – the level of support from supervisors and co-workers, information, equipment and resources available to allow the work to be done [Code of practice: Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work]

4. Workplace relationships – the nature of relationships between workers, managers, supervisors, coworkers and clients

5. Role clarity – the overall scope or responsibilities of the job, clarity about the objectives, key accountabilities and management expectations of workers

6. Organisational change management – how change in the organisation, structure or job is communicated and the extent of worker involvement during these changes

7. Recognition and reward – the nature of feedback on task performance, performance reviews, opportunities for skills development, formal and informal rewards

8. Organisational justice – perceptions of unfairness, consistency, bias and respect for workers.

Alongside the People at Work tool, SafeWork NSW has released a code of practice, Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work, to help businesses of all sizes better understand their WHS obligations in the context of psychosocial risk.

“It’s really important that companies properly understand this legislation in practical terms,” Ian concluded.

Talking more about SafeWork NSW’S expectations for managing psychosocial risk in the workplace, Ian Firth will present at the Safety In Action Conference, hosted by Informa Connect.

This year’s event will be held 14-15 December at the Royal Randwick Racecourse.

Register now to secure your seat.


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