Earlier this year the Supreme Court of Victoria awarded a government employee $625,345 in damages, after finding the employer was aware the employee was having psychiatric difficulties related to work. Importantly, this decision was made despite the employee having a pre-existing psychiatric injury and the Court finding no bullying occurred.
Wearne v State of Victoria  VSC 25
The plaintiff was employed by the Department of Human Services as a case manager for young offenders. Commencing work in the Sunshine office, she reported an incident of workplace stress and made a successful WorkCover claim. After taking some time off work she then commenced working in the Department's Preston office.
Upon the plaintiff's return, the Department put in place a number of mechanisms to support her. Despite this, the worker's mental health began to suffer, particularly when she was placed under a new supervisor. The worker claimed the new supervisor bullied her by making unreasonable requests of her, publicly scolding her, using a heavy handed approach, and picking on her over little things. Ultimately the worker suffered a breakdown and brought a claim against the Department, alleging bullying and harassment. She also argued, in the alternative, that she was exposed to psychiatric harm through the Department's negligent supervision.
Justice Dixon found the worker was not bullied by her supervisor, rather that an'interpersonal conflict' existed between the two women. However, the alternative claim was made out. The Court found the Department was aware of the worker's psychiatric vulnerability or injury when she commenced work at the Preston office, and knew this vulnerability was being strained by the poor relationship with her supervisor.
Due to the Department's knowledge of the worker's previous psychiatric injury, the Department had an obligation to reduce the risk of aggravating this injury. The Department breached this duty by failing to move the worker to another available team, failing to refer the matter to Human Resources, failing to develop a formal early intervention plan for workplace stress, and failing to train the supervisor in how to deal with a worker who has a psychiatric condition. Importantly, the Department also breached their duty by failing to arrange a formal mediation of problems between the two women with the aim of endeavoring to resolve the conflict.
What this means for workers
Wearne demonstrates a heightened duty of care exists once an employer becomes aware of a psychiatric injury or vulnerability. Once an employer is aware, they must manage the risk of exacerbating the existing injury through preventative and responsive measures - including a formal process of resolving interpersonal conflict between staff. Failure to do so may amount to a breach of the duty of care owed to employees.
It is therefore important for workers to report any mental health difficulties to their employer. This does not have to be done through formal channels and it will help protect your rights at work.
If you have suffered a psychiatric injury at work, speak to one of our expert lawyers today on (03) 9321 9988.