The Administrative Appeals Tribunal has ordered Comcare to compensate a Centrelink employee after it found the agency ignored her diagnosis of depression and major anxiety caused by workplace bullying.
Amanda Kosteski experienced difficulties with new managers in 2010 when returning to work at Centrelink after maternity leave.
Kosteski claimed her manager stood over her at her desk, belittled and humiliated her in team meetings and interrogated her about her personal life every six weeks when her part-time hours were reviewed.
She reported feeling stressed to her doctor and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety a month later and certified unfit for work for a week.
Kosteski was transferred to another office but then returned to the office where she claimed the bullying occurred.
Her condition deteriorated and with further medical certificates she did not work for about 11 months.
Kosteski’s symptoms included nightmares, loss of appetite, losing 17 kg in weight in only three months and suicidal thoughts.
She claimed workers’ compensation as a result of depression and anxiety in December 2012 but this claim was rejected by Comcare in February 2013.
Kosteski applied to the AAT for a review of the decision and the tribunal found she suffered from depression arising out of her employment, and accepted she had felt threatened and scared enough to do what she could to escape from the situation.
The AAT found Centrelink had been put on notice that Kosteski felt bullied and harassed because she had complained on numerous occasions.
“While asking an employee to return to their substantive position at the end of a temporary secondment would ordinarily be reasonable administrative action,” AAT deputy president Handley found.
However, Handley found in this case it was not a reasonable course of action, given Centrelink had been aware of Kosteski’s likely reaction, and Centrelink was liable to pay compensation.
A spokesperson for the Department of Human Services told SmartCompany the department will not be elaborating further on this case.
“It is inappropriate for us to comment on workplace culture or performance issues for individual sites,” the spokesperson said.
“Bullying and harassment are unacceptable and the department has strong code of conduct measures to address instances of inappropriate workplace behaviours.”
Charles Power, partner at law firm Holding Redlich, says in this case an event which would ordinarily considered to be reasonable administrative action which is asking an employee to return to their position at the end of a temporary secondment was not seen as reasonable because the employee affected perceived that she was being harassed and bullied by the managers at the substantive job location.
“The tribunal in this case focused on the failure of anybody to take responsibility for this issue,” Power says.
“Which was clearly relevant to the finding that the management action was not reasonable.”
Power says businesses “can’t just ignore” complaints of workplace bullying.
“You need to respond to them,” he says.
“The response doesn’t have to be formal but there needs to be some consideration by someone in the organization who knows what they are doing about how to deal with the issue and the results of that consideration need to be recorded so they can be displayed if it ever becomes an issue.”