Getting 2022 off to a good start

13 Dec 21

This has been an exceptionally difficult year for businesses, with most of us required to rapidly implement a series of significant operational changes in order to keep people safe and healthy and to comply with new legislation.

Who, in 2019, would have imagined that just a few years later we would be dealing with mandatory vaccination and vaccination passports, or that so many people would still be working from home?  The stress and uncertainty created by the Covid-19 pandemic has been unprecedented, and many workers (and their bosses) are feeling anxious and exhausted.  People are not always behaving well but work goes on and businesses relying on tourism and out-of-town visitors will now be looking forward to the end of the Auckland lockdown and (hopefully) a busy Christmas and summer season.  The rest of us will be looking forward to a break, and to an opportunity to relax and recharge during the January ‘quiet time’.

As the 2022 year gets underway, with the new “traffic light” system well established, we suggest that you take time to engage with your team about health & safety and wellbeing, and to make sure they understand your policies and processes.  Both employers and employees are well aware that health and safety obligations go beyond preventing physical harm, and require taking appropriate steps to prevent emotional harm.  It is important to ensure that people know how to raise concerns about conduct they consider to be bullying or harassment.  Alleged bullying is not always bullying, but the allegation must always be properly dealt with.  If allegations are not properly managed at an early stage then you not only risk notification of a personal grievance and the stress and cost of litigation through the Employment Relations Authority, you also risk the possibility of a WorkSafe intervention and some very adverse publicity.

WorkSafe will not generally step in for one-off mental harm issues, but might intervene if significant work-related mental health risks have not been properly managed. This has been highlighted by recent WorkSafe investigations into the wellbeing of staff at schools, which are still underway but which are already being reported in the media.  For example, according to media reports, WorkSafe began making inquiries into concerns about the wellbeing of staff at Te Aroha College in August this year after they received a complaint.  By September, eight fresh complaints had been laid.  In November, WorkSafe is reported to have told Te Aroha College it had breached health and safety laws and failed to prevent “psychological risk” to its staff.  It was required to take measures to deal with the issues by 2 December, including completing a risk assessment and establishing a system to deal with psycho-social risks to workers.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act businesses are expected to manage all health and safety risks ‘as far as is reasonably practicable’.   WorkSafe provides guidelines on minimising and responding to workplace bullying, including building good relationships in a respectful work environment and emphasising that bullying will not be tolerated. This can be supported through a range of policies and practices, such as codes of conduct.  Some cases, which end up before the Employment Relations Authority or Court, involve an initial incident between a frustrated manager and a worker who is not behaving particularly well.  The employer can struggle to justify its actions no matter what steps are taken after the initial incident.

The start of the 2022 may well be a good opportunity to work with managers, in the first instance, and remind them of the business’ policies and processes.  If challenged by an unhappy staff member, either through the personal grievance processes or through a complaint to WorkSafe, employers will need to be able to demonstrate that they have appropriate support in place and that they have taken reasonable steps to ensure that everyone understands their rights and responsibilities. This means employers must engage with their workers about anti-bullying policies, processes and systems. It must be easy for workers to access information and report concerns.

Preventing unreasonable behaviours before harm escalates, and creating a culture that supports good health and safety, will be good for business.  It must be a priority for 2022 as we all adjust to the new requirements imposed by the pandemic.


Want to know more?

If you have any questions about dealing with mental well-being in the workplace, please contact our specialist Employment Team.

PDF version: here.

This article was included in Edition 13 of our employment newsletter – Employment News which you can read here.



For more information contact:

Fi McMillan