We don’t know which is worse, being the target of bullying in the workplace or being bullied in the workers compensation system. For those who enter the system as a result of serious injury other than through bullying the shock of being treated with hostility is very confronting, however, for those who’ve entered as a result of workplace bullying, the nightmare simply continues.
We’ve long been arguing that bullying is widespread within worker compensation systems, however, this bullying is supported by government and labelled as a necessary form of injury management.
Here’s just one of the many painful stories we hear:
From 1998 to 2003, I was employed by a Community Legal Centre. In the latter years of my employment, I was bullied at work over a long period. Initially, I did not recognise the bullying for what it was. I developed severe back pain and moderate depression. I took my annual leave to try to recover. During this time, I was made aware of the bullying meted out to a colleague and friend. I assisted my colleague in writing a complaint. I was further emotionally devastated by this process both by the distress of my colleague and because her complaint signaled to me that my workplace was losing its integrity. Subsequently, I made a Workcover claim to cover what eventually became six months absence from the workplace…
My friend’s complaint was never dealt with in accordance with the policies and procedures of my workplace. In fact she never achieved a satisfactory resolution to her complaint, and 21 months later disappeared in the desert. She has never been found, and after eight years, it is hard to believe she would still be alive.
My Workcover claim was lost by the insurer, CGU, some time after I had received an initial call to me from their appointed Case Manager.
CGU dealt with this situation by sending me 3 special deliveries in one afternoon. The deliveries included an acknowledgement of receipt of my claim, an assessment appointment with a psychiatrist for early December, and an outright refusal of my claim.
Prior to receiving a report from the assessing psychiatrist, CGU also encouraged my employers to oppose my claim. The employers sent a last minute report, filled with lies and humiliating insinuations about my character and loyalty as a worker, to the Medical Panel convened to assess the validity of my claim.
They also used a shameful “Return To Work Plan/Proposal” to further humiliate me; to breach my health privacy; and arguably to try to prevent me from returning to work when I was well enough to do so. One of the most humiliating and disempowering clauses in this Plan sought to give my co-workers the power to determine whether I was well enough to return to work!
This proposal was prepared and sent to me on Christmas Eve by one of the Lawyers on the Management Committee. This Plan was not at all in keeping with Workcover recommendations at the time and was purely a vehicle for the expression of malice towards me. Up to the point at which I received the “Plan” and a copy of the report to the Medical Panel, I was completely unaware of the existence of this malice. In hindsight, I began to understand that exchanges with colleagues and employers that I felt some discomfort with over the preceding years were actually earlier expressions of this malice, and awkward attempts at bullying.
The Lawyer who drafted the Return To Work Plan and forwarded the offending Report to the Medical Panel also took leadership of a “Return To Work Sub-Committee”. The employers claimed that this sub-committee was established “to ensure my safe and healthy return to work”. This Committee insisted on meeting with me prior to my planned date of return. At the meeting, the Lawyer informed me that my colleagues were “upset” with me and wanted Mediation. This was the first I’d heard of any antagonism towards me in the workplace. No worker had ever approached me personally or followed any of the dispute resolution procedures laid down in the workplace Policies and Procedures. I was engaged in a professional disagreement with one of my colleagues, but believed these disagreements were resolvable. I agreed to Mediation without ever knowing the substance of my colleagues’ complaints because I had a strong belief in the necessity to mediate conflict as quickly as possible to prevent it festering.
I returned to work to what was essentially a hostile workplace. The Sub-Committee never formally responded to my critique of their Plan, nor did they ever meet with me again. On my return, my co-workers set about making me feel very unwelcome in the workplace.
As well as withholding a large portion of my weekly part-time pay – an act which added intensely to the financial problems already caused by my rejected Workcover claim, my employers only ever met with me at a “Special Meeting”, and with my colleagues present, so that I was made to feel very isolated and unheard. My employers never responded to the many letters I wrote to them seeking resolution to my pay problems, the problems with the Return To Work Plan, the problems with the Report to the Medical Panel and alerting them to my now declining mental health.
The Return To Work Plan was never formalised, and when the Medical Panel upheld my claim, the employers made no attempt to apologise for the heinous nature of the Report they had submitted to this body.
My colleagues refused to clarify their “issues” with me, saying they should only be spoken about in Mediation. The Mediation did not occur for two months, during which time the problems festered. By the time it occurred, I was already losing my grip mentally and emotionally. The Mediation was more of a group beat up. There was no clarification of their “issues” with me that had led to the Mediation. All my colleagues expressed contempt for the colleague whose complaint I had assisted. I dissociated and lost the ability to speak or defend myself. I left the Mediation in tears, just as I had left my work every day for the past fortnight.
I returned to work the next day, confused and distressed. I hoped to be able to speak to my colleagues individually so that I could work out what the problem was. I approached the colleague who had worked with me the longest. His response, that “it is inappropriate for you to approach me like this”, finally broke me. I still kept trying to work, but within a few weeks had a serious breakdown which began with a dissociative event during which I began gambling. I had suffered gambling addiction in the past and had achieved a complete remission for the twelve months prior to this event.
The conduct of the insurer in regard to my second claim, plus continuing financial and personal bullying from my employers ultimately destroyed my mental health.
Now in my sixties, I am dealing daily with the consequences of having two concurrent mental illnesses – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Major Depression. In 2006, a Medical Panel found that I had suffered a 30% serious injury as a result of all this bullying. I have never worked again and am deeply impoverished, homeless and completely dependent on the public purse for my survival..