Issue 87, Autumn 2022, Fineprint
Mental health in the workplace
An employer’s issue
Managing workplace health and safety has run the gamut from providing ergonomic chairs and PPE to ensuring appropriate evacuation pathways are clearly marked. Emerging trends from WorkSafe New Zealand, however, indicate that the mental wellbeing of staff should fall under an employer’s obligation to provide a ‘safe’ workplace.
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, an employer is required to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers. The legislation defines ‘health’ as both physical and mental health. Historically, most employers have understood this to mean that asking for unrealistic workloads to be met or using bullying tactics on their staff could result in a breach of the Act or a successful personal grievance claim. It was generally accepted that the management of the mental wellbeing of staff outside the employer-employee relationship was assumed reasonably out of the employer’s responsibility or control.
It appears the sentiment regarding this previously held assumption is changing rapidly in both New Zealand and Australia. Workplace health and safety agencies from both countries have stepped in and issued notices to employers who have failed to manage their employees’ general mental wellbeing, particularly where action could have been taken to prevent mental harm or distress.
Recent New Zealand example
An example of this new emphasis is WorkSafe issuing an improvement notice to Te Aroha College in late 2021 for failing to prevent ‘psychosocial risk’ to its staff. Interestingly, this situation arose from rumours circulating about two teachers falsifying permission slips that the school did not take steps to stamp out. The rumours, that were running unchecked, were seen to cause undue distress to the two teachers involved and WorkSafe intervened. This action came as a surprise as WorkSafe publicly states it does not ordinarily step in to ‘individual’ circumstances. By intervening and making ‘an example’ of Te Aroha College, WorkSafe has signalled an increased focus on this area of workplace health.
Australia’s health and safety agency, Safe Work Australia, has issued similar warnings. In 2021 it took action against the Wyndham Clinic Pty Ltd. The clinic was prosecuted for failing to provide structures to prevent bullying in the workplace, including employee-employee bullying. In this instance, a senior employee was seen to use profanities and verbal abuse against another employee (including saying other people did not like that person and did not like working with them). Wyndham Clinic was ordered to pay over A$79,000 in fines and costs for a failure to provide procedures to prevent an employee’s mental harm.
These actions from government agencies indicate that employers must be much more proactive to prevent mental distress in the workplace. In the Te Aroha College situation, the origin of the rumours is unknown, and it was never alleged that the rumours were employer led. The implications are that WorkSafe expects an employer to take steps to proactively manage employee-employee bullying and/or risks to mental wellbeing. In most workplaces, particularly large organisations, employee–employee bullying may be hard to identify. For example, in workplaces such as construction sites, there is a largely accepted behaviour of workplace ‘banter’ that an employer may have always deemed appropriate or, at the very least, considered relatively ‘good natured’. In large organisations where employees are spread over many sites there may be no oversight of employee-employee interactions.
So, what is an employer to do?
A first step for all employers is to ensure there is a suitable and up-to-date workplace mental wellbeing policy. This policy should be very clear on what steps can be taken by an employee who is feeling unduly stressed in the workplace — for all manner of reasons. This should extend beyond typical workplace bullying and into areas such as workload management, limiting and preventing exposure to aggressive or abusive clients/customers, and to management of uncertain situations.
The policy should also include the steps an employer will take to provide support and care to their employee when stress is caused. The policy should be provided to all employees, and employers should take steps to frequently remind them of the availability of support pathways.
Every workplace is unique in its health and safety needs. The Act states that an employer should take steps that are ‘reasonably practicable’, so it’s probably safe to assume you aren’t expected to tuck your staff member into bed at night (in fact, please don’t!), but it is clear that more steps need to be taken. For some employers, enhancing how you take care of employees’ mental wellbeing could include:
- Reviewing your workplace policy
- Providing your employees with multiple avenues of support and communication (not just through their employer or manager)
- Routine staff meetings to raise mental health conversations
- Activities in your workplace to help employees manage stress, for example, meditation workshops
- Having conversations with individual staff members who appear sad or withdrawn to identify any workplace triggers
- Frequently reminding your staff of the clear steps they can take to communicate mental distress to their employer, senior management or external support providers
- Discussing how you as the employer or senior manager propose dealing with upcoming uncertainty, such as Covid business continuity planning
- Anonymously surveying your staff to monitor wellbeing and ‘pressure points’, and
- Regularly auditing your own workplace to check for compliance in workplace health and safety procedures and reassurance that existing systems are working.
Managing the health and safety of employees has always been a changing landscape. It is now clear, however, that there is a shift towards enhancing the policies and procedures that employers must have in place to protect the mental wellbeing of their staff. Given the uncertainty of working in a pandemic-related environment, employee wellbeing is already fragile. Taking the time now to revamp internal policies to help overall staff health is a worthwhile exercise not only to protect the mental wellbeing of your valuable staff, but also as a pre-emptive step for enhanced government-driven focus on this topic.
Could be a good option to get on the property ladder
Getting on the first rung of the property ladder is becoming harder than ever to achieve. The reasons why are well known — sky-rocketing house prices, higher rents and costs of living, tight lending restrictions and a shortage of housing stock. This perfect storm presents a living nightmare for first home buyers. Is it time for prospective homeowners to give up on the Kiwi dream of home ownership? If not, there are other options.
The Kiwi dream
There are significant social and economic benefits to communities from the security that comes with having an established place to live. It brings freedom from the uncertainty and stresses of renting coupled with anxiety as house prices continue to rise. These benefits make the housing dream worth chasing and have driven private companies, the government and charities to provide innovative solutions to help Kiwis (with a variety of incomes and house price brackets) into home ownership. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.
Co-ownership (or shared ownership) is a practical tool to get on the property ladder: by ‘shared’ we don’t mean pooling funds and cramming into one house with several other families (or your closest friends) bunk-bed style.
Co-ownership means buying the percentage of a property that you can afford now, with a silent partner (either a company, the government or a charity) providing the balance. Together you ‘co-own’ the property in those shares. The home is yours to enjoy. You are free to paint the walls, change the carpet, hammer in picture hooks and plant a garden. In return, you pay the rates and insurance, and maintain the property.
You pay a fee (or interest) for the co-owner’s share, and in time (either by an increase in the property’s value or because your financial position has improved) you can buy out your co-owner. Boom — full ownership!
Filling the deposit gap
For many prospective buyers, their inability to save a large enough deposit is the main barrier to getting a loan from a bank. Most are quite capable of servicing a mortgage but cannot save for the required (and ever-increasing) deposit amount because life gets in the way.
The gap between the deposit saved and the deposit required is just too wide for many. This is where co-ownership initiatives help people who don’t fit mainstream mortgage criteria.
Buying a first home provides Kiwis (who have been in KiwiSaver for at least three years) a ‘single use’ key to unlock those contributions which can assist towards 5% of a house deposit. If you have 5% of a deposit, you can use the co-owner’s contribution to top up the deposit required for regular retail lending — without having to resort to a second-tier lender.
If the worst happens – what next?
As well as the upsides of owning property, what happens if the property market dips, your personal financial situation doesn’t improve or if your relationship breaks up?
If things really go belly-up, the house can be sold, the mortgage repaid and your co-owner shares in the loss (or the gain) in the percentage ratio that they contributed at the outset. Or there may be other options; always talk with your co-owner as they may be able to offer alternatives.
Some co-ownership options
New Zealand Housing Foundation: Help from this charity is limited to people buying new houses that are located only in New Zealand Housing Foundation developments. The income cap is $95,000. Find out more at: www.nzhf.org/affordable-home-ownership/
Kāinga Ora: The government’s First Home Partner programme is also for new houses only. You must be able to contribute a minimum 5% deposit and the total household income cap is $130,000. It will contribute a maximum of 25% of the house value or $200,000. For more information on this, go to www.kaingaora.govt.nz and search for First Home Partner.
YouOwn: This privately funded company operates nationwide: it manages investment from not-for-profit entities to support co-ownership in the community. It allows co-owners to buy existing properties, as well as new ones. There is no income cap or house value limit. Eligibility criteria includes a 5% deposit, minimum household income of $110,000, and no or low debt. You pay 4.95% per annum on YouOwn’s share and can buy them out after five years. Go here to find out more: www.youown.co.nz. And there are other organisations and private co-ownership schemes and arrangements that you could investigate.
In high-price areas such as Auckland (actually, almost anywhere in New Zealand now) and without access to a ‘bank of Mum and Dad’ to solve the deposit gap, a co-ownership arrangement may be the best opportunity for prospective buyers wanting to escape private rentals and have a place to call their own.
Each scheme has different terms, eligibility criteria, restrictions and limitations. Come and talk to us to ensure a full understanding of the co-ownership journey.
So, check out the co-ownership possibilities and keep the dream alive. It may be you, or someone you know, who could use a helping hand onto the property ladder right now. +
Checking your home is accurately insured
Regularly review the sum insured
Recent sharp increases in building materials costs due to Covid shortages have affected the cost of a possible rebuild, or repair, of your home. It is, therefore, wise to have your home properly insured. Although most commercial property owners must obtain an insurance valuation at least every three years, there is seldom any requirement on homeowners to do this.
With most house insurance policies, it’s up to the homeowner to set the sum insured. If your sum insured is too low, you may not be able to repair or rebuild your home to the same size and quality in the event of damage or loss. If your sum insured is too high, you are paying too much for your insurance as most insurers will only reimburse policyholders for the actual cost of the loss they have suffered.
Tips for determining the sum insured
Professional valuation: If you want accurate and up-to-date rebuild figures, obtain an insurance valuation from a property valuer or quantity surveyor. The sum should be based on current building costs, not market value.
Online calculator: Using an online calculator (Cordell Sum Sure, for example) can be useful but this comes with a word of warning. It’s an estimate; it is not as accurate as a professional valuation. We heard a recent example where a professional valuation produced a figure almost 30% higher than using an online calculator.
Whichever method you use, the valuation should:
- Not include the cost of the land, just the property/structures built on it
- Allow for current building standards to be implemented
- Factor in structural improvements such as sheds, pergolas and fencing
- Include the cost of removing debris, and
- Include GST.
It’s up to you to check your sum insured is accurate and kept current. You should review the sum insured each year to make sure it’s still appropriate for your home.
In the unfortunate event that you experience any loss and have difficulty reaching agreement with your insurer over the value of the loss, please contact us for advice on your legal options.