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Tribunal: Deputy President Bernard McCabe

The applicant was a qualified engineer who had been working for the Department of Defence since 2003. She claimed she developed depression and stress during her employment due to mismanagement and bullying by various superiors in the workplace. She made a claim for compensation to Comcare for her conditions.  

The Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 excludes Comcare from paying compensation for conditions that are caused by reasonable administrative action.[1] Comcare accepted that the applicant’s conditions were caused by administrative action but they refused the applicant compensation because they claim the administrative action was reasonable.

The Tribunal accepted that the administrative action in this matter was a series of events that occurred during 2015 between the applicant and several senior officers. The Tribunal’s decision focused on whether this administrative action was reasonable.

The Tribunal narrowed down the administrative action to two workplace events that contributed substantially to the onset of the applicant’s conditions. The first was a mid-cycle review between the applicant and her supervisor, which the Tribunal viewed as the original cause of the applicant’s conditions. During the mid-cycle review, the supervisor discussed a number of issues with the applicant including her working hours and her communication with other engineers in the Department. Following the meeting, the applicant visited a doctor with complaints of stress and anxiety, and the doctor prescribed her an anti-depressant.

The applicant’s supervisor changed after the mid-cycle review and there was a temporary improvement in her condition. However, friction began between the applicant and her new supervisor, as they were frustrated with each other’s work methods. The applicant also complained of overwork and micromanagement. The applicant claimed that during this time she felt bullied, harassed and isolated. After approximately six months, the supervisor asked for an investigation into the applicant’s fitness to hold an engineering authority.

This investigation, undertaken by a Chief Engineer within the Department, was the second workplace event that made a substantial contribution to the applicant’s conditions. During this time, the applicant experienced significant distress especially because the investigation was taking much longer than originally anticipated. After more than two months, the Chief Engineer called a meeting with the applicant and told her that questions had been raised over her competence that needed to be addressed. The Chief Engineer said he had completed a formal investigation and had decided to cancel her engineering authority.

The Tribunal had to consider if the actions taken by the applicant’s superiors were reasonable. The Tribunal stated they were required to look at the motivation behind the action and the conduct of the action. The Tribunal was critical of aspects of the employer’s conduct towards the applicant and stated that the applicant was not managed perfectly and she was not handled with great sensitivity. The Tribunal stressed that the standard for reasonableness was not perfection in management.

After looking at all the evidence and questioning the applicant and her superiors during the hearing, the Tribunal was satisfied that the actions of the applicant’s supervisors were reasonable. The Tribunal was satisfied that the supervisor who conducted the mid-cycle review had sound reasons for discussing the issues with the applicant. The Tribunal noted that while some may question the wisdom of his approach, that did not make it unreasonable. The Tribunal was also satisfied that the formal investigation into the applicant’s competence was appropriate and not affected by bias. The Tribunal noted that the investigation might be criticised on several grounds but accepted the explanations the Chief Engineer provided. The Tribunal was not satisfied that the investigation was unreasonable.

The Tribunal affirmed the department’s decision that the applicant was not entitled to compensation.

Read the full written decision on AustLii.

[1] Section 5A(2) of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988