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If a bullied employee didn’t report the bullying, does it mean there isn’t a problem?

A parliamentary inquiry into allegations of bullying at WorkCover NSW – the watchdog responsible for workplace safety, including bullying complaints, across all NSW employers – has heard the most common approaches to dealing with an outbreak of bullying don’t work.

”Wellness” programs, which focus on an individual’s resilience, and dispute resolution are like handing out safety equipment, when what really needs to be tackled is the danger that organisation’s culture poses to the health of its staff, experts said.

”Get rid of the asbestos, don’t just give everyone a dust mask,” said University of NSW senior lecturer Dr Carlo Caponecchia last week. He also warned that hotlines, injury claims and staff morale surveys weren’t accurate measures.


Allegations of bullying inside WorkCover aren’t new. A PricewaterhouseCoopers investigation was ordered by the previous Labor government and came up with a raft of recommendations.

Yet in June, the industrial court again found that a senior employee at WorkCover had been bullied out of his job, in a case that had ”the characterisation of institutional bullying”. The parliamentary inquiry was called.

WorkCover, which will give evidence on Monday, boasts in its latest annual report that only five staff called its Bullying Response Service last year. The inference is that bullying is not widespread.

But witnesses at the inquiry gave another reason for so few calls to the hotline – staff who did call were subsequently exposed to their managers.

Jann Jeffries, an industrial officer with the Public Service Association, told politicians ”harm” had come to union members who used the service.

Bullying victims had their privacy breached when invoices for the service, identifying the callers, were sent to managers. In other cases, staff who had called the hotline in confidence were later challenged about the content of those conversations by the managers they had complained about.

Over the past two years, WorkCover has paid out more than $1 million in workers compensation claims to its own staff. Injury claims halved last year to 22, as psychological injury claims dropped by 84 per cent to four, and there were just two explicit ”bullying” claims (down from 11). Problem solved?

Caponecchia says a bullying reporting system needs to be safe to use, ”so that people don’t feel that in reporting a problem there is going to be ‘payback’.”

Multiple submissions to the inquiry by serving and former WorkCover staff, in administrative, legal and medical roles, have described a ”toxic and unsafe work environment with a broken culture”.

One wrote: ”Staff have become so disillusioned that those who are bullied don’t bother to complete the survey.”

”Reports of bullying being reported are rare,” wrote a lawyer. This is because reporting it would only worsen an individual’s problem, he said.

”We desperately need someone to regulate the regulator,” wrote another WorkCover employee.

The inquiry heard WorkCover’s internal problem with bullying meant it was ill-equipped to deal with bullying as an injury issue in the broader workforce.

One woman, a solicitor who had received a psychological injury in a private workplace and then had an insurance issue, said: ”Complaining to WorkCover is traumatic.”

”I was at the point where [the WorkCover employee] could hear that someone was contemplating suicide at the other end of the phone and he did not back down,” she said, in tears.

A survey of bullying across all NSW government departments by the Public Service Commission in 2012, released under freedom-of-information laws, showed seven of the top 10 most bullied agencies were local health districts. In the worst case, three-quarters of staff in the Central Coast health district had witnessed bullying.

A later survey conducted by NSW Health in March found only 42 per cent of staff statewide had confidence in processes for resolving staff conflict. Half had been verbally abused in the past year.

Employees who have written to Fairfax Media suggest the situation is worse than the survey results indicate – they point out only a third of staff actually responded to the survey. In some districts, the response rate was as low as 17 per cent.


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