What would you think, if a manager was physically assaulting a staff member? Would it be okay to do nothing? Of course not.
Would you think, if that staff member had to take leave to recover from their injuries, that the manager should not be held to account for their conduct? Of course not.
Yet this exactly what staff with disability experience when they are refused the attention to their needs that they are entitled to. The assault is not physical, however. It is emotional. But the consequences are no less catastrophic upon the staff member’s wellbeing. In fact, the emotional harm done endures far longer than physical. For people who have been physically assaulted the emotional trauma of the assault remains long after the body has healed.
Post Traumatic Stress is a real consideration
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is experienced long after the conflict zone has been exited. For a long time, PTSD has focused on a threat to physical being only. We now recognise Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), which “relates to the trauma model of mental disorders and is associated with chronic sexual, psychological, and physical abuse or neglect, chronic intimate partner violence, victims of prolonged workplace or school bullying”.
Prolonged workplace bullying can manifest in many ways – including the failure or refusal to provide assistance or an adjustment while insisting that the staff member with disability is being supported.
Disability can be traumatic
Staff with disability who need a workplace adjustment to enable them to do their best work are not asking for favours. They are asking for something they are entitled to have and which their agency is obliged to provide.
Living with a disability can include living with PTSD or C-PTSD because the psychological impacts of significant disability are rarely acknowledged or understood. This is especially so for acquired disability or chronic degenerative conditions.
To be ignored or refused or treated dismissively and without empathy can add, sometimes critically, to the stress burden a person with disability already experiences.
When managers do not act appropriately
Staff with disability report that the most common problem they encounter is unresponsive line management, and when they seek to address that problem, several things commonly happen:
- The line manager becomes even more unresponsive.
- Executives back the line manager; or refuse to intervene.
- The staff member feels blamed for ‘causing’ the problem – and sometimes they feel that they are being punished – especially if they complain.
- Their workplace adjustment matter remains unresolved.
Catastrophic consequences for staff with disability
Here are some consequences experienced by staff members with disabilities after being subject to abusive conduct by line managers:
- Ongoing physical pain and stress because their adjustment need has not been addressed – leading to reduced performance – and then a performance review
- Feeling they are not valued or respected – or treated with dignity or respect
- Depression and anxiety
- Workers Compensation leave for psychological injury – not infrequently having to return to the same abusive environment
- Traumatic memories and reactions associated with a workplace setting or senior staff seen as ‘perpetrators’ of abuse
- Having a reputation for being a ‘troublemaker’
- Fear of being ‘managed out’
- Emotional exhaustion
- Resignation in despair
This is still going on. Why do we think it is okay?
There are no processes to ensure that:
- A staff member with disability can obtain swift and effective support to ensure their entitlement to a workplace adjustment is respected and acted upon.
- Line managers and their executive managers who refuse or fail to support a workplace adjustment request are held to account and effectively assisted to change their attitudes and behaviours.
What staff with disability experience is assault
A refusal or failure to exercise proper responsibility and power on behalf of an agency to support the welfare of a staff member is unacceptable.
It is also a form of assault – because it causes harm. Emotional or psychological injury is mostly seen as the aftermath of a real (physical) assault. In fact, it is the immediate and direct consequence of an assault upon a person’s psychological wellbeing (their sense of dignity, sense of self-worth, sense of personal power and their expectation of inclusion as an equal).
Psychological assault is as serious as physical assault. An agency’s obligation to act to stop or prevent it is no different. An agency’s responsibility toward the ‘victim’ is no different.
An agency’s response to the perpetrators of psychological assault is a measure of the degree to which it tolerates or condones abuse of power by its leaders. If it did not tolerate or condone such conduct it would have a mechanism in place to prevent and address it now.
It is not okay not to act.