National

Telling-off from boss caused my mental breakdown, says public servant

A public servant who claimed a telephone call from his boss left him psychologically unfit for work, has lost his battle for workers' compensation.

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal has ruled that an Australian Taxation Office manager acted reasonably when he called Andrew Turkington about his performance in December 2010, even if it did leave the taxation official with "adjustment disorder with depressive reaction."

The decision follows the failure last week of a former public servant to win compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder she says resulted from attending a respect and diversity workshop.

Mr Turkington was working as a team leader in the ATO's  Small and Medium Enterprises (S&ME) unit in Brisbane in December 2010 and had been having some problems in his job.

One of his team was underperforming and disagreements emerged between Mr Turkington and his bosses about how to pull the errant public servant back into line.

The situation reached crisis point on the day of S&ME's Christmas Party when the subordinate, who has not been named, asked for a transfer out of Mr Turkington's team, accusing the team leader of bullying and harassment.

Mr Turkington was already at the party when his supervisor Cameron Unwin called him on his work mobile to bring him up to date on the situation with the team member.

Although he did not recall exactly what had been said, Mr Turkington alleged that the director raised an "imputation…that [he] was not competent in his job and had overly personalised performance management of a staff member".

According to evidence presented to the Tribunal, the phone call sent Mr Turkington in a downward spiral.

Within days he had sought treatment from his GP and was taking diazepam, he began taking periods of sick leave until he took extended leave until January 2013.

When he came back to work, he accepted a demotion from the position of Audit Operative although he kept his standing and salary as team leader.

But federal workplace insurer Comcare refused his claim for workers's compensation, saying Mr Unwin's phone call was "reasonable administrative action".

Mr Turkington took his case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal describing the phone call as a breach of natural justice.

He claimed Mr Unwin should have delivered the message face-to-face and that the manager should have known that making the call would damage Mr Turkington's health.

In its defence, the ATO conceded that it did not follow its human resources protocols to the letter, but that its manager was eager to let Mr Turkington know about decisions made in his absence, before he heard it from elsewhere in the workplace.

Tribunal Senior Member Graham Kenny accepted the Taxation Office's account that its manager had every intention of following up the phone call with a face-to-face meeting, and found their conduct was reasonable.

Under federal workplace laws, the Tribunal found, Mr Turkington is not entitled to compensation.