ACT News

Chief Minister Katy Gallagher says public sector bullying persists

The ACT public service leadership is concerned that bullying and harassment between line managers and individual staff is still unacceptably prevalent, writes Tom McIlroy.

The incidence of bullying and harassment between line managers and individual staff members remains of concern to ACT public service leaders.

ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher told a Legislative Assembly hearing on public accounts on Monday that bullying rates among the territory's 20,000 bureaucrats had reduced because of the work of senior executives. But as in other jurisdictions, lower-level staff continued to face unacceptable harm in the workplace. 

Facing questions about recent instances from across directorates including Territory and Municipal Services, ACT Health, the Canberra Institute of Technology and police and fire agencies, Ms Gallagher said more work was needed to improve workplace culture.

"I think there is no doubt that there are issues, a problem, that people come to work and feel like they are bullied or harassed," she told the committee.

"We've put in place processes to manage those and to try as much as we can to not allow them to happen again." 

Opposition community services spokeswoman Nicole Lawder told the committee that about half of staff had completed respect, equity and diversity framework training, which includes bullying prevention strategies.

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The committee heard that between 10 and 20 per cent of staff experienced bullying in their workplace and 20 to 30 per cent of staff had witnessed bullying. 

Ms Lawder questioned the ACT public-service culture and why such rates of bullying could continue to be reported. 

Last month, The Canberra Times reported that territory public servants had lodged mental health claims at rates far above their Commonwealth peers, easily exceeding similar claims by employees in the private sector.

Evidence to Senate Estimate hearings by the workplace insurer Comcare showed that ACT bureaucrats had recorded 3.6 mental health claims per 1000 workers in 2013-14, surpassing the 1.9 claims per 1000 workers from the Australian Public Service.

Private sector workers had lodged just 0.4 claims per 1000 in the same period.

The ACT's State of the Service report, released in September, found that more work was needed to help allay "perceptions and realities of bullying", although the findings were described as similar to Victorian public service levels.

Data in the report showed that 160 reports of bullying had been received in 2012, falling to 124 in 2013 and 96 in 2014 up to September.

Bronwen Overton-Clarke, ACT public service commissioner and deputy director-general of the Chief Minister and Treasury Directorate, said bullying in the ACT was at similar levels to other Australian state and territory workforces, including New South Wales.

A lack of clear expectations from some public sector managers led to problems in the work environment, she said.

"What we have found is training and awareness has really increased in the last few years and that of itself leads to a lot of reporting," she said. 

"It is a very complex picture. One of the things that we want to do early [in 2015] is do some increased training for managers around a whole set of tools, including the RED framework, the code of conduct and performance management." 

Ms Gallagher defended the government's record on dealing with workplace issues but agreed no "miracle cure" existed. She was joined at the hearing by ACT Head of Service Kathy Leigh.

Workforces facing challenging conditions including high-stress activities, emergency response and shift work were susceptible to bullying and harassment issues, Ms Gallagher said. 

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