A nursing home administration assistant has won a long-running compensation battle against the TriCare organisation for persistent “harassment” – that regularly reduced her to tremors and tears – dished out by her supervisor.
Robyn Eaton had worked in various public and private hospitals and retirement homes from the early 1970s, including a period at TriCare Mermaid Beach in 2002.
In 2007 she took up a similar position in Harvey Bay, reporting to TriCare’s Pt Vernon centre manager.
That position involved payroll, rostering and patient liaison roles with which she had no prior experience. Although she enjoyed a good personal relationship with her boss Kym Pointon, the latter’s frequent absences left her working up to 50 hrs/week and longer when Pointon ultimately left in December 2008.
Jane Harrison’s welcome to Pt Vernon as new manager was marred by the centre’s disappointing failure – on 17 of the 44 relevant criteria – of an “unannounced accreditation visit” which the ill-equipped Eaton was left to confront alone during the period prior to the new manager’s start.
Naturally enough, Harrison was intent of re-complying the facility as soon as possible but that determination lead to tensions with other personnel “who in her perception had contributed to the situation has she found it”.
Harrison – a former Navy officer with an MBA from the University of Queensland and an impressive work history in public and private sector health care administration – adopted an authoritarian approach towards Eaton that frequently resorted to talking down to her, pointing her finger, aggressive body language and screaming.
The manager refused help to alleviate her subordinate’s workload and in response to a complaint about her conduct,
Harrison is alleged to have screamed, “I will speak however I like, get over yourself, no one likes you anyway”.
After a hearing that occupied the District Court for eight days, Judge Brian Devereaux mostly upheld Eaton’s complaints and concluded they were the source of her psychiatric illness that would prevent her ever working again. He nevertheless dismissed the claim in June 2015 by deciding the employer had no liability for the injury as it “was not reasonably foreseeable”.
On appeal it was noted that after Harrison’s arrival, Eaton changed – according to some staff – from being “happy-go-lucky, very outgoing, bright and bubbly” to being observed several times – even by Harrison herself – “shaking with a tremor in her hands and often teary”.
Because her employment agreement did not mandate task performance regardless of hours worked, being engaged beyond the standard hours constituted “excessive workload”.
That alone was not – said the appeal judges – such as to make any psychiatric injury reasonably foreseeable.
But the high work demands did make it more difficult for Eaton to cope with Harrison’s “harassing and belittling behaviour”, as did the refusal to have the work burden reduced.
An employer has no “legal responsibility to provide a happy workplace or one in which productivity might be enhanced by temperate and polite behaviour from management,” observed Justice Philip McMurdo. “The relevant duty is to take reasonable care to avoid the risk of psychiatric injury where she was exhibiting a particular vulnerability.”
Put another way, conflict with staff is entirely acceptable but Harrison’s behaviour – which was imputed to her employer directly and vicariously – was not.
But as a psychological injury foreseeable?
The appeal court reflected that it is “now well known that although not everyone who is exposed to stress develops an illness, it can do so in some cases”.
Eaton’s “manifest psychological state made the risk of that occurrence reasonably foreseeable and Ms Harrison ought to have foreseen it”.
Having wrapped up the foreseeability point, the 61-yr-old Eaton was this month finally allowed her damages at the $436k as assessed by the trial judge.