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Safeguard Magazine

Regulator report—Greater expectations

NICOLE ROSIE on meeting public expectations of the regulator around sexual harassment and bullying.

Steph Dyhrberg’s article last issue on sexual harassment and bullying was a welcome contribution to an important and emerging dialogue in New Zealand. It’s time we lifted the lid on behaviours that in the past may not have been so easy to talk about.

From my perspective, the increasing attention over the last year on bullying and harassment is refreshing to see, as it’s been clear for many years that the country faces challenges in this area. Numerous surveys across multiple sectors have shown that between one in three and one in five New Zealanders believe they were bullied at work in the previous year. There is increasing evidence of sexual harassment, particularly in those sectors that are male dominated or have a history of “work hard, play hard” cultures.

The increased focus on bullying and harassment is a progressive and positive change for New Zealand. There is no doubt that management of bullying, harassment and psychological harms is an essential component of effective health and safety approaches and management systems.


It is also a huge challenge for us at WorkSafe. This is because while technically the Health and Safety at Work Act covers all workplace harms, including workplace bullying and harassment, this area of harm has not been prioritised in New Zealand and hasn’t been a key priority for WorkSafe or any other parts of the health and safety system.

There are reasons for this. Firstly, there is our relative maturity. We are behind much of the rest of the developed world in health and safety maturity. The UK established its Health and Safety Executive with a similar mandate to WorkSafe in the 1970s and has now been solely focused on improving H&S outcomes for 44 years. Australia initiated its move to modern H&S regulation ten years ago, with its regulators ahead of us in implementing the Model Law. Like us, both the UK and Australia started their focus with acute accident harms, and these were the areas that saw the early reductions in harm.

As rates of acute harm have fallen, these established regulators are now maturing in their approaches and moving their focus to wider health aspects (including bullying and sexual harassment). As WorkSafe NZ approaches our fifth birthday in December we are just outgrowing our toddler stage, and our implementation of the Model Law is still not much more than an infant at two years old.


Notably, many comparable countries now have system targets for health-related aspects, including mental health, bullying and harassment (as well as targets for acute harms). Most have done significant work understanding their health and safety claims profile and they know that mental health and psychosocial harms are prevalent in both the cause and ongoing disability from acute harms. They have models that show exposure rates and can measure cost and impacts. They are well ahead of NZ, which has none of these baselines in place.

Most similar nations also compensate mental harms, either through their workers’ compensation schemes or through compulsory insurance schemes – meaning employers pay for the cost of psychological harms in the same way they do acute harms. Mental harms are the largest growing claims cost under these schemes throughout the developed world. Even without this level of transparency, many claims for injury reveal an underlying relationship to mental health conditions. With cost comes money for a harm prevention focus. This is where effort is going in globally, with tens of millions of dollars being invested into regulators to support harm prevention programmes around mental health and wellbeing, including the prevention of bullying and harassment.

Why are they doing this? Firstly, because it is becoming increasingly clear that health exposures are the major cause of workplace harms as well as the highest cost, so need to be managed if we are going to improve health and safety outcomes. Secondly, and most importantly for employers, because it is costing money – they want to reduce their exposure and harms.


What this means is that New Zealand is starting from a low base and is playing catch-up, and we are being asked to do it at a faster pace than the rest of the world.

From a regulatory perspective, WorkSafe is being asked to run – to regulate all workplace health harms including bullying and harassment – while at a system and structural perspective, NZ is only walking. Currently almost all our current measures of system success (and our funding) focuses on acute harm and some catastrophic harms, like mining and high hazard facilities.

NZ is rapidly working to change this. The government has had a new health and safety strategy out for consultation, which has a heavy focus on health-related harms including mental health, bullying and harassment. With the new strategy would come new measures of success and possibly supporting funding – including funding for health-related harms, including bullying and harassment.

It is absolutely clear that ten times more people are harmed in NZ each year from health-related exposures, including mental harms, than are harmed from acute injury. So this is not only the right thing to do, it is a smart thing to do. It is vital to the sustainability of NZ, our businesses and people.

As NZ evolves in this area, WorkSafe will be challenged to meet expectations. We absolutely believe that workplace bullying and harassment is a critical issue that needs to be effectively prevented and regulated. At the same time, like everyone in the NZ health and safety system, we are building our capability to manage and deliver in these areas off a very low maturity and base.

As a country, if we are going to effectively manage psychosocial harms we need to manage them right. Using the same approaches, people and capabilities we have developed for acute harms won’t work.


WorkSafe is very conscious of this, and is working to build this capability. We are absolutely focused on ensuring we hold businesses to account around this area – but we also need to ensure we do it in the right way, protecting and respecting victims and ensuring the health and safety system is changed positively by our interventions.

This is where we are currently focused. We are building the case for change and resourcing in this important area, focusing on building our capability to ensure we manage it right and focusing on ensuring businesses understand their responsibilities and are increasingly held to account.

You can expect our attention to strengthen in this area over time. We are moving from a walk to a jog, from baby steps to adult leaps, aligning our approach to public expectations. Employers and the health and safety system need to keep up and ideally lead this change!

Nicole Rosie is chief executive of WorkSafe New Zealand.

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