Approximately $543 million is paid in workers’ compensation claims for work-related mental health conditions each year in Australia, comprising nearly 7,200 workers. However often the term ‘psychological injury’ is misunderstood as it is not physically ‘seen’, therefore remains untreated. The term psychological injury refers to an individual’s emotional state and behaviour, which can include conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders, and can disrupt their ability to work, carry out daily activities or engage in meaningful relationships.
Signs that a worker may be experiencing poor mental health or a psychological injury are:
• Poor work performance, lack of motivation or low productivity
• Changes in physical appearance i.e. poor grooming
• Restlessness, irritability, seeming passive or other dramatic behavioural changes
• Increased absenteeism or presenteeism
• Mood swings, outbursts or more emotional than usual
• Avoidance or withdrawing from conversation, activities or interactions with others
It’s important to understand that workplace psychological injuries are common and need to be managed appropriately to avoid severe outcomes for the employer and employee. Psychological injuries at work can occur from stress, workload demands and pressure to perform, but are also regularly attributed to workplace bullying and harassment.
So how can psychological injuries be prevented? The great news is that there are many easy to implement and low-cost short term prevention measures available, which have been proven to effectively manage risk factors:
• Promote work-life balance and enforce it
• Encourage team building activities where workers can engage in socialisation, stepping away from work
• Promote a strong safety culture where WHS is respected, acknowledged and adhered to
• Provide open communication channels where workers can provide feedback or voice concerns privately and without judgement
• Promote wellness programs such as physical activity incentives
• Ensure all WHS policies and procedures are clear, defined and enforced, covering
o Bullying and harassment
o Change and performance management
o Grievance and conflict resolution
So what happens when a worker has already sustained a psychological injury? How can it be managed? Once a psychological injury has occurred, there is considerable research proving that early workplace intervention is the best way to significantly prevent the further development of serious problems and improve return to work outcomes.
1. Firstly, the worker should feel supported and listened to – open communication is key! If a worker voices concerns of a psychological injury, they should be heard to ensure that their frustrations are not displaced.
2. Take all reasonable steps to determine the cause of the injury. If the injury is a result of bullying or harassment, action should be taken immediately concerning all parties involved, and inappropriate behaviour ceased. Alternatively, if the injury is the result of workload or stress, re-prioritise, delegate or consider temporary alternate duties.
3. Ensure workers have confidential access to employer supported Employee Assistance Programs to improve resilience and determine coping strategies.
4. Consult a workforce safety provider who can provide training to supervisors and managers on how best to manage mental illness in the workplace, and assist those people to continue to work.
5. Provide contact details for medical support services where the worker can seek further assistance at their discretion.
o Lifeline – 13 11 14
o beyondblue – 1300 22 4636
o SANE Australia – 1800 187 263
o R U OK?
o Black Dog Institute
6. Don’t judge, blame or make negative comments with regard to a workers psychological injury, as it can demonstrate lack of understanding and sympathy.
7. Maintain contact and regularly check in.
When at work, no one wants to feel unsupported, isolated or sad, and no employer wants to have to worry about filling an unnecessarily vacant job position or navigating the workers’ compensation process. So despite having a duty of care, by taking steps to provide a mentally healthy workplace, employers are protected from psychological harm, but employers can also ensure that their businesses are as productive as possible.