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Preventing Workplace Tragedies following the Court Services Victoria Conviction

Workplace Culture
Why an Australian state court fined for a ‘deadly work culture’ should serve as a catalyst to reform psychosocial risk management.

WorkSafe Victoria has convicted and fined Court Services Victoria (CSV) $379,157 for breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 in their failure to provide a psychologically safe workplace environment. This judgment came in the wake of a toxic workplace culture at the Coroners Court of Victoria that tragically led to the suicide of one worker and led to  numerous others taking stress leave.

Court Services Victoria had earlier pleaded guilty to a single charge of failing to provide and maintain a safe workplace. The investigation unveiled a series of shocking revelations regarding the unsafe nature of the work environment.

From at least December 2015 to September 2018, the workers at the Coroners Court were subjected to a hostile environment characterised by exposure to traumatic materials, role conflict, high workloads, poor workplace relationships, and inappropriate workplace behaviours. This toxic mix of factors created an atmosphere where employees reported bullying, favouritism, verbal abuse, derogatory comments, intimidation, invasions of privacy, and perceived threats to their future progression.

As a result, several workers were left with no choice but to take extended leave due to the debilitating effects of this hostile work environment. Reports of anxiety, PTSD, stress, fear, and humiliation were all too common among the victims of this unhealthy workplace culture. The most devastating consequence was the suicide of one worker, Principal In-House Solicitor Jessica Wilby, who took her own life in September 2018 after a three-month personal leave during which she was diagnosed with a work-related major depressive disorder.

The profound tragedy of Jessica Wilby's death serves as a stark reminder that workplace safety isn't limited to physical wellbeing; it also includes mental health. CSV's admission of its failure to conduct adequate risk assessments and implement proper risk control measures underscores the dire consequences of neglecting psychological safety in the workplace.

InCheq co-founder and CEO, Dr Angie Montgomery, highlighted the importance of using these events as a catalyst to prevent recurrence and reform the way psychosocial risk management is currently perceived in Australian workplaces. 

“These events should serve as a reminder that we can strive to prevent such tragedies in the future by proactively addressing psychological health risks in the workplace, and taking action before these incidents occur.” Dr Angie said. 

“All organisations have the responsibility of proactively identifying psychosocial risks and putting in place measures to ensure the risk to employee mental health is minimised.”

While psychosocial risk management is an emerging field, what happened with the CSV is a tragic reminder of the potential consequences of inadequate workplace approaches.

The SafeWork Australia Model Code of Practice outlines several key steps for managing psychosocial hazards in the workplace. 

  1. Identifying Hazards & Assessing Risks: Psychosocial risk management begins with recognizing the potential psychological hazards within the workplace. This involves understanding the work environment, job roles, and individual factors that can contribute to psychological distress. By conducting regular risk assessments, organisations can pinpoint areas of concern.
  1. Employee Involvement: Inclusive management means that employees are actively engaged in the process. Their experiences and perspectives are invaluable in identifying areas of concern. Open channels of communication and feedback mechanisms can help employees feel heard and valued.
  1. Implementing Controls: Once risks are identified, the next step is to develop and implement controls to mitigate them. This can involve changes to work processes, policies, or culture. In some cases, it might require training programs to enhance psychological resilience or stress management.
  1. Regular Monitoring & Evaluation: Psychosocial risk management is an ongoing process. Regular monitoring and evaluation help ensure that controls are effective and that new risks are promptly addressed. By tracking key performance indicators and gathering employee feedback, organisations can adapt to evolving challenges.
  1. Continuous Improvement: As understanding of psychosocial risk management evolves, organisations should be prepared to adapt and improve their strategies. Continuous improvement is key to maintaining a psychologically safe work environment.

Crisis support is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14 and from Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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