It was a lethal combination of mental illness and workplace bullying that caused Paula Schubert’s death, but her HR department’s lack of action is concerning.
In November 2016, Paula Schubert took her own life following a battle with anxiety and schizophrenia. She spent 32 of her 53 years working for the Northern Territory’s Department of Children and Families and was described as “a quiet and compliant worker who tried her best and was always willing to please”.
Schubert suffered a mental breakdown in 2014 with significant side effects, including an increased paranoia that she would lose her job. According to the recently released coroner’s report, “she made frequent approaches to other staff seeking reassurance” that she would not be fired.
A week prior to her death, Schubert was demoted. Her manager, Patricia Butler, suggested lightening Schubert’s workload as she was concerned that extra work would amplify her anxiety.
“[Initially, Shubert’s employer] took appropriate action to identify how Paula could be supported in her return to the workplace. In 2016 her employer took a different course. They showed no empathy and no awareness of appropriate managerial practice. Rather they sought to obtain the agreement of Paula to a temporary demotion,” says judge Greg Cavanagh.
The results of the enquiry into her death, which Cavanagh describes as “shocking”, suggest a lack of understanding and training in the NT Department.
What did the Department get wrong?
Simply put, the employer’s attempts to demote an employee due to mental illness concerns were inappropriate and unfair.
The behaviour was also non-compliant with the Northern Territory’s Anti-Discrimination Act which states: “a person shall not fail or refuse to accommodate a special need that another person has because of an attribute … psychiatric or psychological disease or disorder, whether permanent or temporary”.
According to the coroner’s report, during initial conversations about her demotion, Schubert was not given the opportunity to have a support person present. She also didn’t receive adequate notice of when certain meetings would take place. At one point she was given half an hour notice and was not briefed on the meeting’s agenda.
Butler made jokes that Schubert would have to start bringing a coffee plunger to work, instead of her usual take away coffee, if she were to accept the lesser role which equated to less pay.
HR’s hands-off approach
Butler then consulted with the HR section of the Department to implement the demotion and according to the coroner’s report, “HR seemingly did not understand that there was anything inappropriate with what management sought to achieve”.
In a later team meeting, Schubert was reportedly doodling in her notepad in a “zombie like state” and Butler said to the room full of people, “Paula will share her minutes with everyone”, to which Schubert looked surprised.
While Butler said this comment was a “joke” Schubert’s doctor said “to expose somebody who was already under a degree of stress … [and to then humiliate them publicly in the workplace], given the fear that she would lose her job, that’s critical.”
“There are a number of issues that bedevilled the Department of Territory Families’ handling of Paula’s health issues. However, the primary one was seeking to demote Paula. It seems that the Department thought it appropriate because they gained the consent of Paula. However, it is difficult to understand how that view could have been held given that it was obvious that Paula was overly anxious, desperate to please, afraid of losing her job and had known mental health issues,” said Cavanagh.
“The conduct of the managers in holding meetings without providing appropriate information about the agenda, without giving appropriate notice or a reasonable opportunity to have a support person present, the teasing about not being able to afford coffee and the humiliation in front of fellow workers was not reasonable management action. In my opinion it was bullying.”
What should they have done?
Around one in five people will experience a mental health issue in the workplace, according to Dr Grant Blashki, beyondblue’s lead clinical advisor.
“The senior people in an organisation play a large role in setting the cultural tone. They can do this by making mental health part of everyday conversations,” he says.
He also gave advice for what to do when facing bullying.
“If someone is being bullied, my advice is to talk to someone they trust then speak to the person who is bullying and ask them to stop, this might sound obvious but they might not realise how much they’re upsetting someone. Record when the event happened, so you can refer to it in the future, check what policies your organisation has and then speak to someone in authority.”
Dr. Blashki outlined some of the mental health warning signs HR and other colleagues should look out for, including: withdrawal, presenteeism, uncharacteristic behaviour, moody/angry outbursts and a big drop in performance. More obviously, if someone is openly talking about death or harming themselves, that needs to be taken very seriously.
He says while HR’s role is important in changing the culture around mental health, it’s up to everyone in the organisation.
“Part of making a mentally healthy workplace culture is that the senior people actually understand what to do and the organisation invests in them being skilled in some basic mental health areas. There’s a great program in Australia called Mental Health First Aid. It’s a short program and gives people some basic mental health literacy.”
Following Schubert’s death, the Department sought an external consultant to review their mental health practices. Their recommendations included:
- The 2010 Australian Human Rights Commission: Workers with Mental Illness – a Practical Guide for Managers be sourced and distributed to managers;
- Beyondblue’s National Workplace program be investigated to determine whether it could be delivered to managers;
- Implementation of an Unplanned leave reporting system;
- Employees with non-work related injury or condition are provided with a reasonable adjustment plan and monitored appropriately.
“There might be a tendency to wonder how a scheme to demote an employee because of mental health issues could operate in a modern government department. The HR unit should operate to prevent such actions. However, far from counselling against the scheme to demote Paula, HR supported the managers in that endeavour. That is a damning indictment on the organisation,” says Cavanagh.
If you are thinking about suicide or experiencing a personal crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit beyondblue’s Heads Up website for information on creating a mentally healthy workplace.
Photo credit: pxhere
Better understand your legal and duty of care requirements as employers to identify, address and prevent bullying and harassment in your workplace, with the AHRI short course ‘Bullying and harassment’.