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24 April 2024

$380,000 Fine For Harmful Work Culture Serves As Reminder To Protect Employee Mental Wellbeing

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Cooper Grace Ward

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Established in 1980, Cooper Grace Ward is a leading independent law firm in Brisbane with over 20 partners and 200 team members. They offer a wide range of commercial legal services with a focus on corporate, commercial, property, litigation, insurance, tax, and family law. Their specialized team works across various industries, providing exceptional client service and fostering a strong team culture.
Recent case highlights consequences if you do not take steps to ensure your workplace is conducive to the mental health of employees.
Australia Employment and HR
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A $380,000 fine for Court Services Victoria demonstrates the consequences for employers who do not take steps to ensure their workplaces are conducive to the mental health of employees.

Failure to provide and maintain a safe workplace

A $380,000 fine for Court Services Victoria (CSV) demonstrates the consequences for employers who do not take steps to ensure their workplaces are conducive to the mental health of employees.

CSV oversees the Coroners Court of Victoria, the court body responsible for investigating unexpected deaths in Victoria. Significant mental health hazards existed at the Court due to the presence of traumatic materials and improper workplace behaviours.

Complaints had been made to CSV of inappropriate conduct within the organisation, including bullying, favouritism, cronyism, verbal abuse, derogatory comments, intimidation, invasions of privacy and perceived threats to future progression. It was found that CSV failed to act on these complaints and multiple workers took stress leave due to this workplace environment. One worker was diagnosed with a work-related major depressive disorder and died by suicide.

CSV pleaded guilty in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court to a breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic) occurring between 2015 and 2018. This Act imposes a duty on employers to provide and maintain a working environment for employees that is safe and without risks to their health, including their psychological health. CSV conceded that it had failed to adopt an adequate process for identifying risks to psychological health in the workplace.

Magistrate Glenn Walsh said the gravity of the offending was significant, causing deep distress and putting the lives of employees at risk. This resulted in CSV receiving the maximum fine of $379,157 for the breach of its safety duty.

Lessons for employers

Employers throughout Australia need to ensure the psychological safety of employees. In Queensland, employers must comply with duties under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld). This requires a person conducting a business or undertaking to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers and other persons. This includes both physical and psychological health. A failure to comply with this duty can lead to prosecution and fines.

To prevent work-related psychological injuries, employers should be consulting with employees to identify mental health hazards in the workplace. Common psychosocial hazards include poor job support, low job control, poor workplace relationships, remote or isolated work, and bullying and harassment.

Based on the hazards identified during employee consultation, appropriate control measures should be implemented. Control measures may include mechanisms for the anonymous reporting of hazards, training organisation leaders on mental health, placing barriers between employees and traumatic material, and giving workers more control over their workload.

Employers should also implement policies dealing with mental health hazards in the workplace. These policies should address how hazards are to be reported and detail the support mechanisms the organisation has in place for employees. Policies should be continually reviewed to ensure they remain appropriate and adapted to the hazards in an organisation.

Since the prosecution, CSV has reported making significant changes and implementing systems that help identify issues of workload and exposure to difficult material to prevent further harm to employee mental health. This includes a peer support program, mental health first aid training and clinical wellbeing services for employees. It has also appointed a health, safety and wellbeing director, injury management advisers and a vicarious trauma project lead.

CSV's fine serves as a reminder of how important employee mental wellbeing is. Hazards such as inappropriate workplace behaviours and exposure to traumatic material are significant risks to the health and safety of workers. Employers need to consult with employees and implement measures – including workplace policies – to control these psychosocial hazards.

© Cooper Grace Ward Lawyers

Cooper Grace Ward is a leading Australian law firm based in Brisbane.

This publication is for information only and is not legal advice. You should obtain advice that is specific to your circumstances and not rely on this publication as legal advice. If there are any issues you would like us to advise you on arising from this publication, please contact Cooper Grace Ward Lawyers.

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