Toxic workplaces – can we do better?

At Redfern Legal Centre we see clients every week experiencing significant psychological distress as a result of bullying, harassment or discrimination at work as well as termination of their employment.

Man looking down.

What can we do to improve the systemic response to workplace disputes to reduce the negative impact upon individuals?

The extent to which we identify with our workplaces and its impact on our self-esteem and state of mind aggravates the impact of poor workplace management and/or termination of employment, particularly on vulnerable employees.

Such vulnerability may be owing to the employee’s language or literacy levels, they may be people living with mental or physical disabilities and may be juggling multiple economic and other stressors in their lives.

Poor conditions at work and/or the sudden loss of employment in acrimonious circumstances are clearly an additional source of stress, sometimes leading to relationship breakdown, threats to tenancy and stable housing, other credit and debt issues as well as deterioration of mental health.

These are the people who typically present at our employment and discrimination advice sessions. We therefore frequently combine our legal practice with referrals to other providers such as counsellors, including financial and mental health professionals.

Where legal remedies are available we work with our clients to navigate the legal system if they decide to challenge their workplace. The stress of litigation is another factor we need to accommodate in our practice and how to best serve the interests of our clients whilst bearing in mind a client’s sense of well being as well as their legal options.

Clearly it is preferable to pre-empt situations where workplaces are allowed to become ‘toxic’, that is, discrimination, bullying and harassment is allowed to occur and, in some situations, the victim is further persecuted for speaking out.

It seems that the mere existence of comprehensive legal requirements to prevent workplace abuse, whether because it results in unlawful harassment, discrimination and/or a breach of workplace health and safety laws is still not enough to inculcate an approach which actively combats behaviour and decisions that result in real damage to workers.

Non-profit organisations are not exempt from needing to improve in this area. Organisations operating in the non-profit sector work hard to make our society more equitable and safer on behalf of our clients. However we need to ensure that we also look inwardly and implement robust, pro-active policies and procedures that make our own workplaces safe and non-toxic in an effort to pre-empt and prevent conflict that results in psychological damage to employees.