Undermining the legitimacy of mental health injuries is a slippery slope 

A few weeks ago, the Victorian Government released the outcome of a two-year review of the Victorian workers’ compensation scheme, which found that benefits paid to injured workers exceeded premiums paid by businesses to fund the scheme by about $1.1 billion per year. As a result, the government described the current scheme as being ‘fundamentally broken’ and ‘unfit for purpose.’ This blowout in costs was attributed in part to the significant increase in psychological injury claims (approx. 24% increase over the past decade), along with longer durations and higher claims costs associated with such claims.

In presenting potential reforms to address the state of the scheme, the government suggested possible changes to how psychological injuries are viewed under the scheme including: potentially removing bullying and harassment as an accepted cause of psychological injury; restricting mental health injuries to post-traumatic stress disorder, only; and/or other reductions to the criteria on which psychological injury are assessed. 

Such solutions are simply unacceptable and a contradiction to the government’s stance on mental health. Essentially, the government is implying that:

  • too many psychological injury claims are being accepted, and that this is a result of it being too easy to get a claim accepted. The further implication here is that too many people are getting support for their mental health and that the support should only be for the most severe cases; 
  • bullying and harassment is not a legitimate cause of psychological injury, and that the employer is not liable for injury as a result of these acts; or 
  • it’s not a “real” psychological injury unless it is PTSD, meaning there needs to be a traumatic event/incident tied to the onset of psychological symptoms for the injury to be legitimate. This is a throwback to how work-related injuries are assessed, in that there usually needs to be a date of injury or single incident resulting in the injuries being claimed for. 

This approach reinforces the already present stigma around mental health and, more specifically, work-related psychological injury. The stigma or assumption that psychological illness is an individual problem and a result of an individual being “too sensitive” or not having resilience. It removes the responsibility for psychological safety in the workplace from the employer and re-aligns it back to the individual worker. 

If we look at the national data on work-related psychological injury (SafeWork Australia), it is true that incidents of psychological injury have increased over the past decade, with a sharper rise in the past three years. 

This is nationally, and is a result of two core factors: improved awareness of psychological health and safety, as well as increased awareness of mental health in general; and the COVID-19 pandemic having a direct impact on the employment landscape.

National data also confirms psychological injury claims do cost more and last longer than physical injury claims across the board. This is directly related to complexities in assessing the claim at its initial point, complexities in treating and managing mental health conditions, factors within the workplace such as cause of injury, culture, supportiveness, communication etc, timeliness of treatment and consistency of treatment, and support for return to work. Unfortunately, claims involving workplace bullying and harassment (which account for 39% of all psychological injury claims nationally) typically have lower return to work rates and longer durations, as outcomes are heavily dependent on how the worker feels about the actions their employer has taken in response to their claims. 

Removing bullying and harassment from the list of causes of psychological injury takes away the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace for their employees, gives perpetrators of bullying and harassment the green light to continue their behaviour, and removes the right of victims to support and compensation when they have not been protected in the workplace. This is a very slippery slope and is purely unacceptable. 

Taking aim at psychological injury for being the higher cost, longer duration problem child of workers’ compensation claims simply ignores the fundamental flaws and limitations of the state’s workers’ compensation scheme and undermines the very real and lived experiences of those who have been psychologically injured in the line of work.

Dr Katrina Norris, PhD (Organisational Psychology), Director, AAPi

AAPi Update 

Posted on 31 March 2023