What Are We to Do?

What Are We to Do?

In last week’s podcast on the Anvil’s Ring (http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=157242&refid=stpr), I promised to include some of my research on workplace culture and the solutions that have been implemented.

I introduced my workplace culture blog by saying that improving your work environment starts with you. But if you are at a loss as to where to get started, how to act differently, and what difference one person can make, you should probably be asking what others have done. So what has been done?

Let’s look at two countries who have put their hearts into solving this problem: Australia and the United Kingdom (UK). Both countries have identified the serious problem of poor job satisfaction, low employee engagement, bullying, and often times violence in the workplace. They’ve also made the decision to do something about it. They’ve developed plans and funded the programs designed to solve what they see as a health and safety issue. These programs are designed with the individual in mind although they were implemented from the top down. If you are wondering about what we are doing in the US, all states have anti-bullying laws for schools and laws applying to the workplace environment have been introduced in a few states.

First let’s look at Australia. In the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources (2016-54, 352-368), authors Hanley and O’Rourke of the Monash University in Melbourne, described the progress that Australia has made. The title of their research article is “The Race Without a Finishing Line: Legislative Means for Confronting Bullying in the Australian Workplace.” Australia has done an admirable job of identifying the problem in terms of dollars lost. They estimate that the results of poor working environments such as absenteeism, staff turnover, reduction in productivity, legal and health claims, and the cost of grievance procedures cost employers between A$6 billion and A$36 billion each year. Multiple studies since 2010 have showed that at least 1 in 5 workers reported being bullied in their workplace, yet some researchers believe it is much more prevalent. Australian authorities developed a definition of bullying that is fairly practical and could help reduce the number of frivolous claims. Once again, this is considered a health and safety issue, so it was placed under s55A of the Occupational Health, Safety and Welfare Act of 1986 (SA). They defined bullying as a behavior “that is directed towards an employee or group of employees, that is repeated and systemic, and a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would expect to victimize, humiliate, undermine or threaten the employee or employees to whom the behavior is directed; and that creates a risk to health and safety.” The laws implemented under this act were used in multiple cases but there were limitations.

The first limitation was that complaints could only be filed by an authority or an inspector. Employees were not allowed to initiate any proceedings. If proceedings were brought, compensation could be awarded for damages such as loss of wages, and general and exemplary damages; but the ever present “loss and suffering” which we are so familiar in the United States, was not considered as eligible damages under these laws. Depending on your point of view, this limitation could be a positive, but you may change your mind when you hear of the third limitation. “Serious injury” must be proven and is defined as 30% impairment. Anyone who can prove that he has a 30% impairment and that it was caused by bullying probably believes the laws are useless.

Australia did reassess, however. In June of 2013 their federal parliament adopted the Fair Work Amendment Bill. Along with this bill, their Fair Work Commission (FWC) was authorized to have jurisdiction to hear applications directly from employees who claim to be the targets of bullying at work. The definitions were reviewed and edited as part of the process. The behavior had to be of a repetitive nature (not a one-time thing), had to be a risk to health and safety and excluded routine management actions such as performance reviews and other reasonable attempts by management to improve the employee’s performance. The biggest limitation to this bill was that the FWC was not authorized to award any compensation for damages whatsoever. They only had the power to order an employer to make accommodations to prevent the bullying. They could not even order an employer to reinstate an employee once they were terminated. The results of this new method were reported by the FWC in their 2014 annual report. In their first six months, the anti-bullying website received over 100,000 hits, 3550 phone calls were received, and they had about 340 written complaints to process. In those six months they finalized twenty-one of the complaints which resulted in only one order to an employer, and they dismissed the 20 complaints that remained.

England, on the other hand, took another approach. They also very carefully identified the problem only they took a much broader view. They looked at mental health for their entire population with workplace health as only a part of the big picture. Like Australia, they looked at the damage in dollars  with an estimate of the cost of mental health at ₤77 billion, mainly due to lost productivity (New Horizons: A Shared Vision for Mental Health, 2009).  While this program was funded with about ₤80 billion over 10 years, the information surrounding it became a study in their National Health System. Many news articles discussed the lack for funding that was assigned to it: the program was funded by cutting other programs not adding more money on top of it. Other articles accused politicians of choosing to allocate ₤80 billion because that was the amount that the NHS was in debt. Needless to say, the results of this program were difficult to find. It was, however, easy to find articles on the bickering of mental health workers, the number of mental health positions that are left unfilled, and the politicians trying to put a good face on their efforts. The one data point that is consistent, is that mental health in the UK is still as big a problem as it was in 2009 when the report came out. In fact, in many cases, it is reported as being a bigger problem now that it was in 2009.

It is true that improving workplace culture is a global problem. My research shows that implementing laws can be a step in the right direction, yet the laws need to be implemented carefully, consistently, and precisely. The UK’s biggest problem seems to be that they didn’t phase in the program carefully enough even though their intentions were admirable (the lack of funding is a never-ending problem). Australia had enforcement issues that affected the confidence of the workers in the system. In our next podcast, we will talk about some of the details of the valiant attempts by these two countries to solve a persistent human problem and how the changing political climate affects enforcement and funding priorities.

Please email me or comment on this blog post, I would love to hear stories about your positive and negative experiences with your work environment. I hope you are able to catch us on the next Anvil’s Ring podcast at http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=157242&refid=stpr  which is scheduled to be posted November 10th or the 11th . We will be discussing in more detail the Australian and UK solutions as a starting point. See you then!

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