Sydney Morning Herald
By PENNY STEVENS
February 9, 2010
A COURT decision yesterday to issue $335,000 in fines arising from workplace behaviour that resulted in a waitress committing suicide highlights the significant risks associated with bullying and harassment in the workplace.
The owner of Cafe Vamp in Hawthorn was one of four workers to plead guilty to failing to take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons.
The owner and his one-man company also pleaded guilty to failing to provide and maintain a safe working environment.
The company was fined $220,000, and magistrate Peter Lauritsen said he would have doubled the penalties had the defendants not pleaded guilty to what he described as ''the most serious case of bullying''.
The decision demonstrates one of the many costs associated with failing to manage bullying and harassment in the workplace appropriately.
According to a recent draft report released by the Productivity Commission, ''psycho-social hazards'' such as bullying and harassment in the workplace tend to be more costly on average than claims for less serious physical injuries, both in relation to direct costs and time taken off work.
The report indicates that an estimated 2.5 million Australians experience some form of bullying over the course of their working lives.
It is reported that a high prevalence of stress (including that caused by bullying) translates into direct costs to employers in Australia of about $10 billion a year, and costs to the economy of about $14.8 billion a year.
Research shows these costs are due to increased absenteeism and the loss of productivity that occurs when employees are present at work but not fully functioning.
The figures do not include hidden costs associated with increased turnover of staff and recruitment and retraining costs, the costs of management dealing with internal complaints, and intangible costs associated with decreased trust, loyalty and staff morale.
Workplace bullying and harassment are not given the same attention in occupational health and safety legislation as managing physical hazards - such as manual handling, working at heights and dangerous substances - and this has led to additional uncertainty being placed on businesses about the extent of their duty of care and how to tackle such hazards.
Eliminating workplace bullying and harassment is an integral part of any employer's organisational OH&S commitments.
The Cafe Vamp decision sends a clear message to employers, company directors and employees that allowing or participating in workplace bullying can lead to tragic results and to criminal charges that carry significant penalties.
Penny Stevens is a partner, specialising in occupational health and safety, with lawyers Hall & Wilcox.
For help or information, visit beyondblue.org.au, or call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114.
Source: The Age