Managing psychological injuries in the workplace

Risk Matters - Summer 2021

Psychological injury claims are expected to increase in 2021 with the ongoing stress of living through a pandemic.

What is a psychological injury?

According to Safe Work Australia, psychological injuries relate to the mental, emotional and behavioural symptoms that can interfere with a worker’s life and can significantly affect how they feel, think, behave, and interact with others.

Psychological injury may include such disorders as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Job stress is commonly used to describe physical and emotional symptoms which arise in response to work situations but it is not in itself a disorder or a psychological injury.

Psychological health and the Scheme

Psychological injury claims are currently the third highest in worker’s compensation claims cost, and it is predicted these claims will have a significant financial impact on the Scheme moving forward.

The total number of claims related to psychological harm has remained consistent since 2011, however the average cost of these claims has increased three-fold since 2011.

In 2011/2012, mental health claims cost the Scheme $25,947.
By 2019/2020 these costs had increased to $74,533.

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Work Health and Safety legislation

Under this legislation, local governments are required to protect the health and safety of its workers, so far as is reasonably practicable.

The term ‘health’ has been defined in the Bill to clarify that it is used in its broadest sense and covers both physical and psychological health.

‘Health’ will cover psychosocial risks to health like stress, fatigue and bullying.

There will be the same general obligations to prevent this type of harm as with other physical risks.

The most common reasons for psychological injury claims within the Scheme include:

  • Harassment and bullying, which have had the most claims – with 263 claims made since 2013.

  • Work pressure – with 73 claims made since 2013

Employees working in the area of Corporate Services made the most claims, followed by trade workers and management professionals. Ensuring you create as safe and healthy workplace can reduce the risk of a claim and reduce the impact on the Scheme.

Case study

Coles group found liable for employee’s psychological disorder

Queensland Industrial Relations Commissioner Jacqueline Power found the tone avnd demeanour of managers will always be relevant when determining whether their actions were reasonable.

Yelling at and belittling staff “could never be said to be reasonable management action,” the Commissioner said.

She found a Coles Group supervisor caused a worker’s psychological injury by berating her in front of other staff members in a team huddle and expecting outcomes that didn’t match the worker’s role.

The night fill worker sought workers’ compensation for an adjustment disorder she claimed arose from months of bullying from the supervisor until March 2018, when the supervisor was transferred.

Coles and the State Workers’ Compensation Regulator rejected her claim, contending her condition arose from reasonable management action, and the worker appealed.

Commissioner Power heard the worker and her supervisor had got on well until December 2017, when the supervisor took the worker to hospital with symptoms of concussion. The supervisor complained to the worker that this forced her to miss dinner with her partner, and ostracized her from then on.

During a January 2018 team huddle, the supervisor “tore strips” off the worker in front of co-workers for failing to ensure her team completed a shelf-stacking task, and shut the worker down each time she tried to respond.

A few days later, the supervisor called the worker into a meeting with three other managers to allow her to raise her grievances, but did not give her notice of the meeting, told her she did not need a support person, and then laughed at her complaints.

The worker also said she felt “used” and “worthless” after discovering she had been performing higher duties without higher pay.

The team huddle was not conducted in a reasonable manner, Commissioner Power found.

“The huddle escalated to a point that the manager was speaking loudly in a confronting manner at an employee who was similarly speaking loudly in response,” she said.

“A manager’s language, tone of voice and demeanour are relevant to determining whether management action was taken in a reasonable way… yelling at and belittling staff in that context could never be said to be reasonable management action.”

Commissioner Power went on to find the supervisor put unreasonable pressure on the worker when she called her into the meeting with three managers without warning.

“The power imbalance in this situation should have been clear to [the supervisor] at the time,” she said.

Further, the supervisor unreasonably failed to manage the pay issue, the Commissioner found.

“It was incumbent upon [her] to know the role of her employees and to ensure that her expectations of their performance was commensurate with their role,” she said.

“The [worker] worked as though she was a manager and was told that she was paid to manage despite not being employed at that level.”

Commissioner Power found these events were “major significant contributing factors” to the worker’s injury and awarded her workers’ compensation.

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