Coroner finds mentally ill worker committed suicide after bullying
A Northern Territory Department of Children and Families employee suffered bullying and humiliation in front of fellow workers before taking her own life, a coroner’s court found.
Coroner Judge Greg Cavanagh said little could prepare him for the evidence given by her manager, which the judge described as “shocking”.
The worker’s manager wrote in her affidavit that “[the employee] would come to work each morning with a cup of coffee… [and I] said to her that she would have to bring a plunger to work” when referring to the mentally ill employee’s demotion and pay cut.
She had also joked about her at a team meeting when she caught the employee doodling on a piece of paper. She told other staff members that “[the employee] will share her minutes with everyone”.
The deceased worker’s psychiatrist, who was present at the inquest, said that this was likely to have been a “critical event” (that led to her suicide), going on to elaborate that “To expose somebody who was already under a degree of stress … to then have a public – effectively a public humiliation in the workplace, given the fear that she would lose her job, that’s critical.”
It was found the government department supported the worker after she had suffered a mental breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2014. However, when her symptoms returned in 2016, management sought to demote her.
When she was ordered to attend a meeting to discuss her demotion:
- she was only given 30 minutes’ notice;
- she was not told in advance what the meeting was about; and
- she wasn’t given the opportunity to have a support person attend.
The Coroner said the department’s management “showed no empathy and no awareness of appropriate managerial practice.”
“There might be a tendency to wonder how a scheme to demote an employee because of mental health issues could operate in a modern government department,” he said. “The HR unit should operate to prevent such actions. However, far from counselling against the scheme to demote [the employee], HR supported the managers in that endeavour. That is a damning indictment on the organisation.”
The Coroner found that the employee had discussed what the financial impact might be on her.
“It was clear that the financial impact would cause anxiety. However, her employer proceeded in a manner that took advantage of [the employee’s] meekness, willingness to please and fear of being pushed out of her workplace,” Judge Cavanagh said.
“To do that to any employee would have been insensitive and inappropriate. Doing so to an employee with 32 years of service and suffering a health episode magnified the inappropriateness of the conduct,” he added.
The Coroner said the conduct of the managers in holding meetings without providing appropriate information about the agenda or a reasonable opportunity to have a support person present, the teasing about not being able to afford coffee and the humiliation in front of fellow workers was not reasonable management action.
“In my opinion, it was bullying,” he said.
“Leaving aside the obvious lack of fairness, the treatment… by her employer was not consistent with the Anti-Discrimination Act,” he concluded.
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