Aggression and racism continue to be major WHS issues

Surprisingly high percentages of workers are exposed to aggression from colleagues, managers and customers, while workplace racism also remains common, creating significant WHS risks and highlighting the need for targeted training, according to safety, wellbeing and human resources specialists.

A Sonder-commissioned survey of 1,025 Australian employees across multiple industries, conducted by McGregor Tan, found 35 per cent have experienced aggression from managers, 44 per cent from co-workers and 62 per cent from customers.

"What is surprising is the extent of workplace aggression and the lack of support afterwards," Sonder says in an executive snapshot on the findings.

Nearly one in two surveyed employees exposed to aggression did not receive any organisational support in the wake of aggression incidents, it says.

Sonder's medical director and specialist physician, Dr Jamie Phillips, says workplace leaders must "take personal ownership of the distress that is occurring in the lives of the people under their watch".

"It is beholden on them to commit to providing safer and healthier workplaces for the people, employees and customers under their care," Phillips says.

"It is imperative for organisational leaders to embrace their responsibility for wellbeing and have the courage to break existing conventions, challenge dogma and look at things through an evidence-based lens if they are to effect meaningful change and create healthier and more resilient organisations," he says.

In the snapshot, Sonder says the survey results "shone a spotlight on current gaps in employee physical and psychological safety", and confirm what it sees daily through its provision of medical, safety and mental health support services.

Other findings included that 72 per cent of workers feel or have felt depressed, 50 per cent feel they are being or have been bullied or harassed at work, 25 per cent are contemplating or have considered suicide, and 22 per cent live or have lived in a domestic and family violence situation.

Some 42 per cent of employees took time off work in the 12 months leading up to the survey because of concerns about their mental wellbeing, while only 18 per cent of workers who are aware of their workplace's mental wellbeing programs understand all of the programs available.

Tackling workplace racism and unconscious biases

HR and WHS consultant Maureen Kyne, the principal of Maureen Kyne & Associates, warns that the health and wellbeing of workers continues to be affected by workplace racism, despite racial discrimination being illegal.

She notes a Diversity Council report released earlier this year found 43 per cent of non-white Australian employees regularly experience racism at work, but says the result is not surprising, with many businesses that celebrate cultural diversity not acting on this by implementing processes to "ensure that their diverse teams are adequately protected or educated".

Employers must be prepared to call out racism and increase their investment in cultural awareness training, Kyne says.

"Clients, colleagues and employees are likely to be from a range of different cultural backgrounds," Evolve Communities co-director Carla Rogers says.

"Not understanding cultural differences can lead to miscommunication and conflict that can have a very real and detrimental impact on your business," Rogers says.

"Unless racism is identified and the language around it changes, companies that fail to respond will face lawsuits, brand damage and a drop in productivity that impacts their bottom line," she says.

"The price of inaction is huge and it should send a powerful message to organisations to take racism seriously."

According to Kyne, steps employers can take to address the issue include identifying and promoting the benefits of workplace diversity and explaining the business case to staff, including an increase in profits that provides job security, and a reduction in sick leave that reduces workload pressures on teams.

An anti-racism position statement should be included in the business's code of conduct and in employee contracts, while cultural diversity training should address racism, unconscious racial biases and discrimination, she says.

Managers should also make it as easy as possible for staff to raise complaints of racism, Kyne says.

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