Conducting workplace investigations increase risks to mental wellbeing
It is no secret, workplace investigations present an increased risk to mental wellbeing.
The number of employees who take sick leave during a workplace investigation is evidence of this fact. Work related stress is responsible for 91% of workers compensation claims involving mental health conditions and workplace investigations are one of the causes.
Additional statistics show us that 41% of psychological injury claims are related to workplace bullying and harassment or exposure to workplace violence. With high levels of non-reporting, the actual figure is likely to be much higher.
The employer’s double dilemma
The increased risk of harm caused by the mere existence of a complaint or investigation does not mean employers should not investigate. In fact, the way employers respond to complainants is a key risk factor in psychological injury and failing to respond appropriately is likely to cause more challenges for the complainant.
On the other hand, presenting the accused with allegations and creating insecurity over their future with the company has a similar catastrophic response, regularly resulting in stress leave and a reduction in mental wellbeing.
What can be done to improve mental wellbeing of people involved in a workplace investigation when employers are left with a double edged sword?
Five steps to increase mental wellbeing during investigations
By examining case studies there are four key risk areas for complainants and a different four key risk areas for respondents. If we look at the data on what positively influences return to work rates the following five step process can address the major risk areas.
Step 1. Recognise the wide-spread nature of pre-existing mental health conditions, trauma and neurodiversity such as ADHD, Autism.
One major factor in improved return to work rates for people with a psychological injury is pre-existing resilience. However, resilience can be worn down by prolonged periods of stress. This could be caused by predispositions such as those listed here, prolonged exposure to bullying or harassment, or significant traumatic events such as COVID-19.
Step 2. Take a risk-based approach.
Before you take any actions in response to a complaint, assess the risks and plan all actions accordingly. Consider the risk to mental wellbeing of different types of responses such as mediation verses investigation. Consider the impact of taking no action. Risk assessments should be undertaken in respect of all parties on a case-by-case basis.
You don’t need to be a mental health expert to do this, but those involved in the risk assessment should be well informed about the risks, pre-existing conditions which might impact and experienced in trauma informed HR practice.
Step 3: Take a victim centered approach to complaint handling.
This means you provide an empathetic ear, listen without judgement, and take action on the information received.
Step 4: Proactively implement support from the organization for each person.
The standard response of ‘contact our EAP provider’ is not enough. Many staff do not trust the confidentiality of EAP providers, and some providers are not skilled enough to deal with the specific stress of being involved in an investigation.
Allocate a support person from within the organization to maintain communication and intermittently check on the persons welfare.
Where applicable, Human resources and return to work functions should liaise regularly to minimize the impact of any negative actions by either party or mixed messages being given to workers.
Step 5. Implement fair investigation processes.
An investigation process must not only be fair, but it must also be seen by the participants as fair. Significant work can be done in most organization to ensure there is a documented and consistent complaints handling process which includes the investigation process and refers to national standards.
- Document and follow the investigation process
- Explain the process in writing to participants to give certainty
- Engage properly trained and experienced investigators, internal or external where required
- Conduct the investigation within recommended time frames
- Make sure the decision makers are not biased and remain independent of the investigation process
- Allow for external support people to represent the interests of parties
- Provide allegations in writing and allow a person to respond in an interview or in writing
- Be sensitive to individual needs at all touch points
- Provide an unbiased, evidence-based report with appropriate outcomes
- Communicate the outcomes and any decisions in a timely manner.
Conducting workplace investigations can cause an increased risk to employee mental wellbeing but failing to respond appropriately to complaints is not the answer. The statistics on return-to-work influencers give us helpful information about what employers can do to improve the mental wellbeing and mental health of people involved in complaint procedures. MyKludo has put together five key steps for employers to implement to reduce the risk to employee mental health and wellbeing during these difficult times.
The Author, Harriet Witchell is presenting a paper on the issues discussed at the 2021 Workplace Mental Health Symposium. If you need support or assistance with implementing complaint procedures or with the handling of a specific complaint. Contact Harriet Witchell at MyKludo. You can read more about how to deal with difficult complaints on our blogs.