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10 March 2010
Remembering The Victims of Workplace Bullying - Stuart McGregor's story
Alannah McGregor tells the story of how her son fell victim to workplace bullying so severe he eventually committed suicide.
IT'S been seven years, but the way Alannah McGregor sounds when she talks about two of her three children, it could have happened yesterday. Grief sounds like this; tight-chested but calm, with an unbearable sadness seeping through the words.
They were born four years apart, but Stuart, 20, and Angela McGregor, 16, were close. She was the youngest and he was the oldest - they did things together. She was his closest confidant. She defended him fiercely. And they died a month apart.
Workplace bullying did this, says Alannah and her husband, Ray McGregor.
Alannah McGregor and, inset, her children Stuart and Angela.
The case of 19-year-old Victorian woman Brodie Panlock, who took her own life after sustained bullying at work, has recently galvanised attention around this ugly but under-reported reality in our working lives.
But before Brodie, there was Stuart.
Stuart had always wanted to be a chef. He was three months away from turning 17 when he scored a highly sought-after apprenticeship as a chef in a kitchen in Bendigo, beating 70 others to the job.
But what should have been a dream job unaccountably turned ugly. Name-calling, verbal abuse and innuendo about his sexuality were common.
His apprentice paperwork was ignored and he was ridiculed. Once he was given a 10-kilogram bag of peas and told to count them. Another time, when Stuart asked about a soup recipe, the bully stood over him, berating him and telling him to ring the chief executive of the company to ask for it.
The main perpetrator was the manager of the kitchen, but following his lead, others would join in.
One day Stuart rang Alannah at lunch-time, excited. Word was going around that he was in line for an employee award, he told her proudly. But he returned from work that evening, furious. Workmates had broken into his car and stolen the knob off his gearstick, wrapped it and ''presented'' it to him as his ''award'' in front of everyone. Stuart had felt humiliated and belittled.
Eventually, Stuart admitted to his parents he hated work and that one person in particular was ''picking on him''. He did not go into details.
Without realising the seriousness of the situation, Alannah says her and her husband's initial reaction was that ''it's not right, but you're an apprentice, you're going to have to put up with it for a while''. It is advice she regrets deeply. Stuart shut down and would not talk about it again.
Later, Alannah heard another deeply alarming story.
Just before the end of Stuart's three-month probation period, he was invited on a camping trip. Initially excited, he then went quiet and made excuses not to go. Much later, it came out that the man who had been bullying Stuart had told him that he ''would have blood up your arse and grass on your knees'' if he went on the trip. Stuart was badly frightened by this.
Eventually the bullying culture came to light after another apprentice complained. Stuart initially denied it; perhaps he still thought he could manage the situation, or probably he was concerned about losing his job, a concern that proved well-founded.
The McGregors say there was an initial internal investigation, which proved unsatisfactory to them. They approached the Equal Opportunity Commission and WorkCover stepped in.
While the allegations were being investigated, Stuart found it impossible to work directly under his alleged perpetrator. Put on WorkCover payments, he never returned to full-time work in his chosen profession again.
Alannah says she was told the bully faced disciplinary action, but remained there while WorkCover concluded their investigations.
In the meantime, Stuart's mental health deteriorated sharply. His chronic depression worsened and as the investigation progressed, he began self-harming. Stuart also began smoking marijuana heavily, negatively affecting the family.
Workcover finished its investigation. Stuart's claims were substantiated, Alannah says, but inspectors were unsure whether there was enough evidence to take to court. But they would make their decision soon.
Meanwhile, unknown to those around her, a quiet despair had entered the life of Angela, the McGregors' youngest daughter. (The McGregors have a second daughter, Stacey, who is now 25.)
Alannah and Ray did not realise it but Stuart had confided in Angela the most distressing details of his bullying, which the family have asked The Age not to publish.
Angela was a lively, ''loud and funny'' girl who was very popular. ''Very grown up for her age, but I guess underneath she was probably depressed and I just realised that myself,'' Alannah says.
Fiercely loyal, Angela regularly defended her increasingly unwell brother against the cruel gibes at school and the local sporting club. ''People just make fun of mental illness,'' Alannah says.
But Angela, too, had been the subject of schoolyard bullying after speaking out over an incident she witnessed in the schoolyard. From her brother's experience, Angela believed no one would help her.
Alannah feels this, on top of her sensitive daughter's great distress at her brother's treatment and the belief certain details of the bullying would be aired against Stuart's wishes, culminated in a terrible decision to take her own life. She was 16. A month later, Stuart was also dead.
''He fought so hard to stay alive,'' Alannah says. ''But he probably blamed himself for his sister's death. I imagine he couldn't live with himself after that.''
IT MAY be some small consolation that in its own modest way, Stuart's case helped contribute to legislative changes that would have an impact on another case involving the death of a vulnerable young worker - Brodie Panlock.
The circumstances are now widely known: how 19-year-old Brodie was subjected to an ''unbearable level of humiliation'' in her work at Cafe Vamp in Hawthorn that led to her suicide in 2006. Last month, Nicholas Smallwood, 26, Rhys MacAlpine, 28, and Gabriel Toomey, 23, were convicted and fined a total of $85,000, while cafe owner Marc Da Cruz, 43, and his company Map Foundation were convicted and fined a total of $250,000 on charges that included failing to provide and maintain a safe working environment. The cafe has since been sold to new owners.
Following an independent review conducted by then-barrister and now Court of Appeal president Justice Chris Maxwell in 2004, the Occupational Health and Safety Act was amended to recognise the importance of psychological health at work.
This change was considered an important tool in helping to more effectively prosecute bullying at work, a WorkSafe spokesman told The Age.
Alannah understands that Stuart's story made its way into the extensive consultation at the time.
One imagines that when something as cataclysmic as a death - whether it is a suicide or an accident - occurs in the workplace, an employer's first action would be to sit down with the bereaved family and talk. In fact the opposite can be true, according to a report published last July which sought to investigate the approaches used to deal with workplace deaths. In a consultation paper prepared for Uniting Care Victoria's Creative Ministries Network (CMN) and funded by the Legal Services Board of Victoria, researcher Derek Brookes found concerns over legal liability meant some employers refused to meet bereaved families.
In many cases, grieving families would be immensely comforted by an apology. Yet the adversarial legal system, concerned with attributing blame and apportioning damages, struggles to accommodate such action.
This is where a modest project run by CMN may just blossom into a world-first. Restorative justice, a term most commonly linked with juvenile offenders, involves victims and perpetrators meeting to discuss the impact of the offenders' actions. It is not linked to legal action. As part of its grief counselling service, CMN had began to investigate the viability of using restorative justice principles to deal with work-related deaths, both accidental and by suicide. Last year, the service received $50,000 from the Legal Services Board of Victoria to establish a model for how restorative justice might fit in with Victoria's legal framework. CMN is now preparing to begin a test case and, if it is successful, will approach the Victorian government to fund a three-year pilot program, the first in the world.
CMN director the Reverend John Bottomley says that while legal remedies continue to be appropriate, those seeking ''healing and restoration'' should also be accommodated.
''Part of the restoration may be the reputation of the person who died, so they are not remembered only in terms of a traumatic death but what they achieved in their life,'' Bottomley says.
He concedes the main issue remains liability. Would an expression of sorrow affect the rights of a family to take legal action? Or the rights of the company? When should an apology be given? Could it be taken into account during a court case?
But Bottomley believes such principles can work with courts, WorkSafe and the coroner. Bottomley nominates the increasing use by WorkSafe of enforceable undertakings, where companies are directed to put money into a project identified by the family, as an example of ''restorative'' practices that already exist.
(WorkSafe says it supports the concept of restorative justice, as well as the wider use of victim impact statements as recently announced by Attorney-General Rob Hulls.)
''Restorative justice gives both parties an opportunity for the parties to actually deal with the deaths,'' Bottomley says. ''What the courts currently deal with now is a breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.''
IN THE aftermath of her children's deaths, Alannah McGregor made a courageous decision. She would puncture the terrible stigma that continues to exist around suicide and talk about what had happened. She spoke in local forums around Bendigo, but it was a chance conversation with trucking magnate Lindsay Fox at a company function with her husband, Ray, that helped her tell her story more widely.
Fox's family had also been affected by suicide, with the death of his son Michael in 1991. He threw his weight behind a project to educate people on the impact of bullying.
The result was Stuart's Story, a 10-minute video made in 2004 with the financial support of Linfox, distributed first in the company's workplaces and then more widely.
Alannah makes a special point of urging people who witness bullying to speak up. She also believes a restorative justice approach may have been helpful for Stuart, at least in the early days.
Stuart's father, Ray, has previously chosen not to speak publicly about the deaths of two of his children. But in an open letter provided to The Age he offers his deepest sympathy to the Panlocks, writing that he shares with Brodie's father, Damien Panlock, the agony of not being able protect his children.
''I would like to see that those who have died will not have died in vain, but leave a legacy that dignifies them by working towards changing the culture in our workplaces,'' Ray writes.
''Relying on the publicity of court cases will not make change as many believe it will. Some believe it will never happen in their workplace or that the snide remarks or behaviour is not really bullying and will not bring about the tragedy of suicide due to workplace bullying.
''It was very hard to get to that point in my life, but each day I work at it and hope that by speaking about it that there is hope for the future.''
For help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, or Lifeline on 131 114.
For more information on workplace bullying, go to worksafe.vic.gov.au
For work-related grief support, visit Uniting Care Victoria's Creative Ministries Network at cmn.unitingcare.org.au or phone 9827 8322.