Psychological Health – the New Battleground

Recent revisions in OH&S legislation deem that all Australian Organisations now have a specific and explicit obligation to ensure the psychological wellbeing of their employees. This is in addition to the more traditional obligation of ensuring the physical wellbeing of employees that most of us are familiar with.

This change in legislation poses a number of new challenges for employers as well as a whole range of new opportunities for employees to potentially take advantage of the system. Don’t get me wrong – this is an essential step in the evolution of contemporary OHS practice – I just don’t think Australian employers are ready for it.

A number of years ago I was providing advice to a Manager who was dealing with an extended absence issue with one of his direct reports. After the fairly standard process of attempting to engage with the employee to understand the reason for her absence and provide support, she revealed that she was suffering from depression. She went further and attributed the onset of her depressive illness to recent experiences at work. The manager’s response was an interesting one. I think his words to me were “She should just suck it up and come back to work”.

I think this example articulates a couple of important issues for employers. The majority of people simply do not understand mental illness and as a result there is a level of fear and suspicion associated with any type of psychological disorder. In addition to this, many regard mental illness with a level of scepticism somewhat akin to the ‘bad back’ injury claims of the 80s and 90s. Whilst this is a sad indictment on our society, employers must leave their biases and preconceived notions regarding mental illness at the door in order to comply with OHS legislation.

The real difficulty with mental illness issues within the workplace is that unlike physical illness and injury, causal or contributing factors are much more difficult to determine. From a WorkCover and insurance perspective this often leads to immediate claim acceptance followed by the difficult task of returning the injured employee to the workplace and providing the necessary support once they have returned. And remember that OHS is still the most effective avenue for Unions and other third parties into your business. Once again, I am not casting dispersions upon legitimate injuries sustained as a result of the workplace but I am sure that you can appreciate the new opportunities for systemic exploitation that have been created.

Allow me to alarm you a little more. Some research I read recently reported that 20% of Australians will experience some kind of mental illness at least once in their lifetime. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2020, Depression will become the second leading cause of death and disability worldwide. And to make matters worse, we know that many people who suffer from mental health difficulties do not seek help of any kind.

This is a complex issue for employers, but to ensure that you are at least working towards meeting your obligations under the revised legislation you should be considering the following:

·Update your OH&S Policy to specifically feature a section on Psychological Health. Awareness and education is the most critical factor here. Sunshine is the best antiseptic as they say;

·Make sure your Health and Safety Reps and First Aid Officers are trained in relation to mental health issues within the workplace;

·Undertake risk-assessments in the workplace to identify hazards and likely stressors as well as possible controls you might be able to put in place;

·Introduce an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). An EAP can provide confidential advice, support and counselling to employees dealing with difficult issues;

·Think about a Peer Support Program – a very effective way of managing issues quickly and in-house; and

·Start talking about mental health issues – include it as an agenda item at management meetings, seek engagement from your employees on the topic, hold information sessions.

I’ll leave you with this excerpt from the Comcare website:

“Psychological injury claims are a significant driver of workers’ compensation costs.

In 2003-2004, Australian Government claims for psychological injury accounted for 7% of total workers’ compensation claims, though nearly 27% of total claim costs.

Costs of psychological injury claims are considerably higher than other injuries because they tend to involve longer periods of time-off work and higher medical, legal and other claim payments.
These costs do not take into account the organisational costs (such as the cost associated with absenteeism, labour turnover, workplace conflict and loss of productivity) or the impact on the psychological and physical well-being of individuals and their families.

Employers can influence these costs through a focus on prevention and early rehabilitation assistance.”

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