Some things are just… sad.
There’s anger behind it, frustration, a palpable sense of frustration– that feeling of banging my head against the wall.
But then… if people speak and in turn they are ostracized bullied and betrayed… what do I say, then?
I say, speak louder. I say, search your guts to make sure your determination is well founded and your instinct to make sure you’re going in the right direction.
And breathe truth into the silence.
How difficult must it be, to be a man and say “I’m not OK”? Is it far too much of an expectation, for men to be able to talk about things like mental health and suicide?
I don’t know. My head hurts when I think about it.
A few weeks back I did an interview with a reporter from the UK. We discussed, quite frankly, the state of men’s mental health in Australia. I watched his face sink into shock as we chatted… he heard all about the ‘toughen up’ culture amongst Aussie men, but I don’t think he understood how completely ingrained it is until then.
“So…”, I watch him put the pieces together. A man employed by a company for fifteen years. Demoted, so far as I know; with very little warning, for no good reason. A social man who thrived on connections and enjoyed the interaction of his job more than other aspect, moved to work in a warehouse for eight hours a day all by himself.
My Tony wasn’t quite the same after that happened. He’d never talk about work when he came home… there wasn’t much to talk about. The usual afternoon interaction invoved him letting off steam, telling me funny stories, a good half hour of verbalising before he relaxed. But after the demotion, He wasn’t enjoying his job at all. And it was of such huge importance to him. He’d been working for the same company since he left school. It was part of his identity, part of who he was.
“It’s tragic,” says Will, the reporter, “the picture of this man suffering but unable to tell anyone….”
It is tragic. It breaks my heart.
Sad. It’s just sad.
We dissected and examined, amongst so many other things, the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude that permeates Australian life– don’t whinge, get on with it.
What would have happened, had Tony spoken out? What if he’d stopped after work that hot afternoon, or any before it, and talked to his superiors and said– “I am not coping. I am having a hard time. I need help”. What would have happened then?
Considering his initial demotion- from what I’m aware- came on the back of him taking two days off work to help his wife with their two small children when they were all sick… I don’t think he would have received much in the way of assistance or support from his workplace.
I doubt he would have even considered having that conversation. He may have just been laughed out of the office. At the very least, I can imagine the current that would flow around, silent but so very real…
And what if he had of taken leave? What when he returned? What would it have been like for him…?
I know, I think. A male dominated non–union workplace where testosterone ruled… Tony would have felt he could never show his face there again. And the worst of it may have been the worst of that first, lonely demotion too– you couldn’t call anyone on what they were doing. You say “Bully” they say “Just doing my job”. You say “Stigma” and you get back “If you can handle the heat, get out of the kitchen”.
You say “Help” and they say “Toughen up”. Because, of course, no one is actually doing anything wrong at all.
Sometimes the requirement of compassion is just pulling your head in. Sometimes it takes someone brave to stand up and say ‘This isn’t right’, despite the rhetoric of ‘But no one is doing anything wrong!’
Sometimes being a bully, being unfair, carrying a stigma…. that requires you to do nothing at all, too, except be an intimidating presence, and be aware of that. Or make snide remarks that are, technically, innocent; but carry an undertone that is directed at you, and you may be the only one who identifies it at the time.
You can follow all the rules… that still doesn’t stop you being a dick. And it doesn’t make you right.
Some of you may remember reading about Darrell Morris, who I now consider a good friend of mine. He organized the Tony “Toz” Dwyer Shield after a friend pointed him toward my blog. They told him about RRSAHM at that time because he was suicidal… reading my blog helped change that.
But sometimes when you’re down, you get back up… only to be kicked, mercilessly and silently, all over again.
Let me run through Darrell’s story, culminating in what happened last week. You’ll understand why I’m so pissed off and upset. You’ll see why Darrell has been left shattered and angry and feeling disappointed in himself… and he’s done nothing wrong here except be honest and stand up for his rights.
Darrell works for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the ACT. He’d worked there for ten years, with continually positive, glowing workplace reports. He got on with his colleagues and his boss and, as of 2009, he seemed to advancing steadily toward promotion, and his career with the DFAT– who he began working for straight out of university– was looking quite healthy.
In 2009, Darrell took leave from his job without pay to undertake paid work for Helen Coonan, a politician who was actively a member of the Liberal Party, and campaigning as such. His offices were aware that this was the reason for him taking leave without pay from the initial application.
(To break it down simply for my OS readers– Australia has a two party preferred voting system, and we vote for a party, not so much an individual person. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but when you really keep it simple– our Government is always either the Labor or Liberal party. In 2009, the Labor party was in power (as it is now). Technically, as a public servant, Darrell was an employee of the government in charge at the time– Labor.
However, the ruling government has no direct bearing on the jobs of public servants. If the Liberal government came into power tomorrow, the employees in Darrell’s department would stay static. The public service is not directly hired nor fired by the government in power.)
Upon his return to work, Darrell found that certain members of his management team had taken offense to his working for a Liberal candidate. His ethics, loyalty, and use of classified information were questioned.
No conduct investigation was ever bought against Darrell– all the claims made were baseless. While the DFAT issued Darrell with a ’letter of regret’ over the incident, they never formally apologized and stated that while they regretted what had happened, they claimed absolute no responsibility for it.
And it seems that’s when things got a bit nasty.
Underhanded comments. Social isolati
on. The general attitude in the workplace that even though the accusations were false, Darrell had done something wrong. He became the most unpopular guy in DFAT.
Not that anyone would acknowledge it.
Darrell believes the attitudes he was encountering every day while working in the job he had loyally enjoyed for almost a decade were a major contributing factor to the severe case of depression he had, at that time, just been diagnosed with. Personally, I’d inclined to agree– anyone who has deal with a miserable job, no matter the circumstances, knows the effect it can have on your greater life in general. When your previously awesome job suddenly becomes miserable due to false accusations and underhanded bullying and mistreatment…
Darrell took stress leave from his job, six weeks initially. He was medically diagnosed with severe depression. ComCare, the body in charge of handling workers compensation cases in the ACT, determined that Darrell’s workplace was a major contributing factor in his illness.
But, on a technicality, ComCare have a ’no fault’ policy. So even when there is someone to blame, they can’t.
As we’ve discussed before, Darrell is a pretty awesome kind of guy. He read my message, to speak, and he took the path less traveled by men in our society– he spoke up. He told his workplace that he had an illness, that he needed leave, that things weren’t cool right now. He also spoke up amongst his friends, family and FaceBook– and, like a lot of people, some of his FaceBook friends were his colleagues. So they knew he was sick, too.
On returning to his workplace from his round of medical leave, his colleagues were asked privately and confidentially if anyone had any issues with Darrell returning to his office and position. No one said anything except ‘Welcome back Darrell!’ But Darrell felt that at least one staff member had chosen to cease any communication with him, and the atmosphere in his direct workspace felt unpleasant.
Darrell requested repeatedly to be transferred to the adjoining office space, in the same position but sharing a physical space with different people, in order to make the working environment more comfortable for everyone. This was denied.
The vibe that had traced Darrell before his sick leave was still there. Amongst other things, a union representative witnessed a senior staff member in an official meeting imply that Darrell’s work ethic was below par by announcing that Darrell was the only senior staff member to attend multiple appointments with his superiors in the last year, in regards to performance. In actual fact, Darrell had organized those meetings on his own initiation to discuss how he could improve his performance ranking from ’performing well’ to ’performing exceptionally’.
There were other incidents too– a staff member of considerably less experience being promoted ahead of Darrell for overseas posting, disregarding his suitably and skill level.
Union officials reported that the tone of harassment and bullying increased over the next few months and become more evident in every meeting they witnessed.
After dealing with this for months on end, returning home anxious and distressed every day; Darrell again took sick leave for severe depression. His superiors have leveled accusations at Darrell of being ’unable to handle disappointment’ and ’carrying baggage’. Darrell maintains strongly that even in the midst of his illness his work performance was excellent, and all performance ratings attest to exactly that. His performance has never been questioned, and documentation attests to this.
The only thing that changed was that Darrell got sick. He was stressed, but Darrell is a bit of a perfectionist, and while his home life was greatly affected, his work performance was not.
While on sick leave, Darrell again applied for a new position within the Department. The month before, Darrell’s performance rating was strong, and he had been second in line for a similar promotion. At the time of the application, Darrell discovered that his performance ranking had dropped considerably,considerably; leaving him very unlikely to be successful for the position he was applying for.
How does someone’s performance become so suddenly unsatisfactory, in the space of a month, when most of that time is spent at home on leave? Had Darrell had a broken leg, would the outcome have been the same?
Darrell’s letters of complaint and verbal concerns have been either out rightly ignored or wholly dismissed. Where he has received a response, it’s said, in basis, that the DFAT have done their job in providing a ’safe and secure’ workplace and that no one had actually done anything wrong.
The case is, as far as the relevant bodies are concerned, closed; and disciplinary action has been threatened should Darrell persist with the accusations.
Darrell is still currently on sick leave but is planning to return to work as soon as possible. However, on his return to work, he will be ineligible for promotion or training for a period yet undetermined. It could be fourteen weeks. It could be three years. He’s waiting on this decision to be made before he can begin duties again.
That’s not a punishment, of course, a potential three year ban on any kind of advancement or training within DFAT. It’s simply due to his medical condition. It’s policy. Despite Darrell’s repeated requests for a written copy of this policy, none if forthcoming as yet.
After all, workplaces are allowed to take into account the health of employees when considering them for certain roles. They’re not doing anything wrong.
But honestly, how does that work? To engage a blanket ban on someone for all positions within a company, including further training, because they’ve taken leave for a mental illness? Isn’t that the very basis of discrimination, and described by the United Nations Human Rights Council?
Doesn’t logic imply that if someone is depressed, removing any opportunities for advancement within their work environment is only going to hinder their recovery and damage their sense of self esteem and competence?
Keeping in mind here that Darrell’s work performance has consistently been strong. Despite numerous accusations and implicit threats, Darrell’s performance in his job has never been formally questioned.
If he’d had a broken ankle, requiring six weeks of leave, then a further six weeks at a later time for reconstructive surgery, would he facing the same potential ban on his return? If he was in remission from cancer, would he be subjected to this? And even if, given the complexities of consular duties, he was unable to return to the exact position he had before he got sick; would they blanket ban a cancer sufferer, someone who has had their wisdom teeth pulled, a mother returning from a bad case of post–natal depression?
I doubt it. What makes Darrell’s case any different? Now, because I’m all kinds of psychic, I’m going to address some concerns here before they’re raised. If you’re going to start saying things like “Oh, but he’s got depression– he must be awful to work with!” or “Hmmm, depression, it’s highly possible he’s in a state where he’s too apathetic to do any work at all. Can’t blame an employer for that… workers gotta work!” or “How can he be trusted to deal with overseas officials if he might break down in tears or yell at them or something!?” or “Dude, I don’t blame them– what if he loses his shit and goes all postal and comes to work with a gun or something?!”… or, God help us, you even want to try “But technically, they’re not doing anything at all”… then I see those statements, and I say bullshit.
Having depression doesn’t mean you’re unpleasant,
or lazy, or teary or even outwardly moody. It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily unsafe. It doesn’t mean you’re a risk to yourself or others, in any way– you can be depressed and be safe, that’s what managing risk factors is all about. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be rude, or cold or insecure or anxious. It doesn’t mean you’re going to go nuts and start shooting people.
It just means you’re fucking depressed. And that has so many different possible symptoms, and how you experience it, how it effects your life, differs from person to person.
Darrell admits that his social interaction with his colleagues were stunted and strained, especially in the weeks before his first period of sick leave, and concedes that this was partly due to his depression. But there’s also that silent undertone of bullying that was happening in unison… chicken, or egg?
Once again– Darrell’s work performance has been excellent throughout his ten years of employment with the DFAT. I’ve seen the documentation that relates to this, and I can vouch for that– there has been no recorded slide in his work performance over the period of his employment, including the periods he was suffering from depression. His work ethic and results produced have been consistently strong, he’s worked with with the Australian consulate on various international crises, including the bombings in Bali and London and the tsunami in Japan. Despite numerous accusations and implicit threats, Darrell’s performance in his job has never been questioned– he has been an above average employee, dismissing personal hobbies and obligations in order to put more time into the position he loved, the one he’d relocated his wife and very young family to be in.
His union delegate is convinced not only of the unfairness of this; but reports that the undertone of bullying, threat and patronization has been present and increasing in the DFAT’s face to face meetings and in their verbal and written communication with Darrell.
The incidence and culture of workplace bullying in government departments, especially those centered in the ACT, is so well known that it was reported to me in casual conversation every time I bought this topic up In Real Life, the reputation of government departments precedes them. While the DFAT and other departments all have internal counselors available to their staff, employees who seek them out report being recommended that they seek another job if they “can’t handle the stress” of DFAT, while other issues are ignored and played down.
Employees report that this kind of stigma is fairly common, and that many employees suffering from a mental illness fund their own necessary leave utilizing sick leave, holiday pay and finally taking leave without pay, some for as long as twelve months; rather than submit a claim for compensation to ComCare. Maybe as a slow reverse of this practice, the successful mental health claims that have gone through ComCare have increased 57% in the past twelve months. Despite this, the culture remains well known and prevalent.
Less than twelve months ago, a woman working for another government department in Canberra her own life, with a contributing factor being repeated and chronic workplace stress. Trent Smith battled his case through the court system for three years, costing taxpayers one hundred and fifty millions dollars, in order to have his job in the DFAT reinstated after a spate of bullying, harassment and false accusations– and he won. It was ordered that his role be reinstated, he be offered a full apology and financial retribution for suffering and lost wages. A recent investigation exposed the long standing culture of bullying and harassment in another government department, despite ComCare’s ’no fault’ policy; but even as long ago as 1997 there were claims that consistent harassment from opposing staff members was a significant factor in the attempted suicide of Nick Sherry.
After researching the events that took place after Trent Smith initially spoke out against bullying in the DFAT, I ask Darrell– aren’t you worried? Aren’t you scared? (Because I am, just a little– it’s been quite a time since I was this nervous hitting publish.)
“Yes”, he says, “but no. My career is gone, everything I have worked so hard at for ten years now. I feel awful for my wife and kids. I’ve effectively lost the only job I’ve ever wanted to do.
But I’m not going to let this happen to anyone else. Someone needs to speak about this, and what’s the worst they can to me now? There is no chance of advancement within the department– I’ve been blocked at every turn for the last few years.
I just don’t want anyone else to go through this. Someone needs to break the silence, and if that’s me, then…” I can almost hear his sad but good natured shrug over the phone line, “that’s the way it is.”
And I think– damn straight. Because that’s bravery– being afraid. But taking a deep breath, putting your thick skin on, and doing what needs to be anyway.
Just last week, Julia Gillard announced a national review into workplace bullying. The review board will be seeking stories and submissions from family members, victims of workplace bullying and the general community. Here’s to hoping she looks closely at the upper echelons of her own departments as well as blue collar, non–union transport depots.
The more people who speak out about this, the more transparent it becomes, the awareness grows, and it dissolves the power that comes with insidious false accusations, snide remarks, social isolation, stand over techniques and all the other tactics of adult bullies that can be so easily dismissed and glazed over if you allow yourself to do that. I freaking hate bullies. I really, really hate the bleats of “But they’re not doing anything at all!!” from people who are willfully ignorant or socially un-empathetic.
What if? What if no one had shown Darrell this website? What if they had and it hadn’t helped? Would there be another mother explaining to her heartbroken kids where daddy’s gone and why he can’t come back, more little boys without their hero? Would there be another devastated widow who’s lost the love of her life? Another family shattered by guilt and pain and grief?
I can’t stand the thought of that. If I have a voice here, then let me use it. And, Darrell, if you’re going down, let’s go with bang that echoes through the silence; and perhaps watch some big men puff out their chests and beat them.
This culture of harassment and bullying in the workplace has to be stopped. Before it, quite literally, kills someone else.
It’s silent, and seething, and, technically, it follows all the rules. And it’s hurting people, and breaking up families. It’s ruining people’s lives.