Mental Health: How Safe is Your Workplace?

Mental health is one of the fastest growing sources of injuries at work according to a recent national report, creating a minefield for employers who fail to take responsibility to care for their employees.

That makes it a national hot topic for business and the subject of Thomson Reuters upcoming Mental Health and Employment Law Conference 2023, to be facilitated by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward AO.

“The conference presenters will look at the extent of employer responsibility and how best to prevent mental health injuries in the workplace, and how critical prevention is to business success and your team’s wellbeing,”  Pru Goward says.

And the figures alone may shock employers into action. While serious workers compensation claims have fallen overall by 13 per cent since 2000, claims for mental health conditions have increased by nearly 60 per cent over the same period and are projected to double by 2030, according to a report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, MENTAL HEALTH AND THE WORKPLACE How can employers improve productivity through wellbeing?

In fact, the report lists mental health conditions with the highest levels of compensation: median compensation paid of $45,900 in 2018-19 versus $14,500 for overall claims. Add to this the median time off work for mental stress claims amounting to nearly 27 weeks, compared to only seven weeks for all serious claims.

With the introduction of new Work Health and Safety Regulations in April this year the legislative pressure is also now on employers to identify risks to workers’ mental wellbeing and foster mentally healthy workplaces.

How do you identify a mental health condition?

“We will hear from clinical experts who will describe the complexities and the many manifestations of mental illness,” explains Pru, who also served as NSW Minister for Mental Health among other portfolios, until 2019.

“The research confirms that mental illness can be hereditary, or the outcome of childhood maltreatment or drug and alcohol misuse, or a combination of all three. It can be brought on by trauma. It can be brought on by stresses in the workplace.

“It can range from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to depression to psychosis. it doesn’t include cognition, so someone who is cognitively impaired tends to be covered by disability provisions.

“The most common mental health conditions, of course, are anxiety and depression.”

Primary and secondary mental injuries

Importantly, mental illness in workers compensation can develop from two sources. First, directly from a primary mental injury caused by, for example,  harassment or bullying at work or PTSD suffered by an emergency services worker. But what is not as well recognised, explains Jonathan Cohen, Principal at actuarial consultancy Taylor Fry and presenter at the Thomson Reuters conference, are those workers who develop “a secondary mental injury”, in particular depression, when a physical injury has caused them to be on leave from work for a prolonged period. These secondary mental injuries further complicate the workers’ recovery, seriously impacting their time on benefits and likelihood of returning to work.

“By the time you get to two years off work on income benefits, most people with physical injuries will likely have developed some sort of mental injury. Often these workers have persistent chronic pain and additional stresses due to, for example, reduced earnings that contribute to the risk of developing mental injuries” he explains.

Take the example of a young man who crushes his ankle at work.  If he doesn’t get support from his workplace – no one rings him from work to check in and see how he’s recovering – he may start to feel isolated.

His convalescence then turns from a month off work to six months off work, which is costing both him and the employer, and he may not even come back.

As Jonathan Cohen observes, “Recovery and return to work for mental illness tends to be protracted, and that’s a huge disruption to the workplace and a major cost borne by employers.”

Impact of failure to maintain a mentally healthy workplace

The flow on effects of mental injury can be profound.  If a person is feeling anxious and depressed at work, this is going to affect their productivity and their relationship with their co-workers. It will affect how managers lead their teams. No one in the workplace is left unaffected.

Other speakers at the conference include leading lawyers who deal with mental health injury claims and mental health practitioners such as Mark Deady, from the Black Dog Institute and Michael Plowright from Working Well Together. They will focus on diagnosis, support for co-workers, the impact on staff turnover and sick leave as well as the low mood experienced by workers in unhealthy working environments – and simple steps employers can take to make their workplaces safe.

The conference will hear from senior legal practitioners familiar with how the law treats these cases and the risks and responsibilities faced by employers.  In some cases staff will also take their concerns about their treatment in the workplace to social media, creating a significant risk to the reputation of the business.

Related: Mental Health & Wellbeing for Lawyers, a Toolkit

The conference will bring an interactive and critical lens to the mental health environment of Australian workplaces at a time when concerns about mental health have never been greater, and, as the Taylor Fry work shows, needs to be much better understood.  Since there is strong evidence that a safe workplace is a productive workplace where employees are not constantly being derailed by trauma and drama, the bottom line of the conference is a simple message: Businesses must, and can, ensure their workplaces are as safe as possible for all their employees.

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