Reports of people breaking down at work, suffering mental and physical exhaustion, or quitting their jobs due to excessive workloads and staffing shortages have hit dangerous levels. Attwood Marshall Lawyers Compensation Law Associate, Tina Davis, discusses how job burnout and work-related stress is on the rise and explains when an employee may be eligible to make a workers’ compensation claim for work-related psychological injuries.
With reports small and large businesses are having to temporarily close their doors due to so many staff either self-isolating having been a close contact to a positive COVID case, to the many people falling ill to COVID, this new phase of the pandemic is taking a toll in workplaces across Australia.
With many businesses left with little to no choice but to extend the working hours of staff who are still able to work, or to bring in temporary staff who may be ill-equipped to handle the role, we take a look at some of the issues employees and employers are currently facing, particularly in the health care industry.
Burnout – a widespread consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic
“’Cry if you need’: Heartbreaking message to nurses exposes frontline crisis”
“Crisis at rural and remote western NSW hospitals as chronic staff shortages cripple health system”
“Nurse quits her job at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital in protest over ‘chaotic and dangerous’ conditions due to COVID-19 pandemic”
“Australian health workers report dire conditions as COVID-19 cases soar”
These are just a few of the headlines circulating media sites this week; and although many people want to blame the media for fear-mongering with these articles, the reality is our health care staff and many workers from a wide range of industries are feeling the impact of COVID-19 and staffing shortages.
It’s no secret that health care workers have been working in overdrive since the pandemic hit our shores at the start of 2020. With additional duties to accommodate testing, vaccinations, and fever clinics, in addition to treating people for COVID and non-COVID-related health conditions, the health care system has well and truly been put to the test.
Many health care workers are working excessive hours, have had their leave cut short, and continue to work overtime in some of the most chaotic circumstances. This can only be sustained for so long. Then there is the added pressure of being called back to work even if you are deemed a close contact because staff shortages at hospitals don’t allow for staff to home quarantine. High-risk staff are then having to remain in PPE (personal protective equipment) even when able to socially distance, are unable to eat or drink and have breaks they should be entitled to, or at the least seek reassurance and comfort from their colleagues in common areas, as they must do everything possible to avoid potentially transmitting the virus to other staff.
The physical and mental toll this is taking is causing burnout and work-related stress and anxiety, and for many, they have nothing left to give.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a specific type of work-related stress. Burnout is a combination of physical and emotional exhaustion and can affect physical and mental health. It results in a sense of reduced accomplishment and motivation, and loss of personal identity.
Burnout is often caused by a work-life imbalance, when someone’s job becomes monotonous or even chaotic, such as in the environment created for health care workers during the pandemic, as well as a lack of control over your work schedule or workload.
If someone suffers burnout, is this covered by workers’ compensation?
Determining if burnout and other work-related stress conditions have resulted in an ‘injury’ for the purposes of workers’ compensation can be a very complex matter to navigate.
This issue was considered in a recent case where an analyst employed by the Australian Taxation Office brought a workers’ compensation claim for burnout, anxiety, and depression. The employee had worked for the ATO since 2000 at an APS5 level. Between 2016 and 2017 he was placed on higher duties at an APS6 level. At the start of 2017, he was assigned a new supervisor who worked remotely from another state. As a result of working higher duties and longer hours while being supervised remotely, he began suffering from increased anxiety, stress, headaches, and dizziness. In May 2017, he was hospitalized after collapsing at home. He subsequently sought medical advice from an ENT specialist, a psychologist and later a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with severe major depression with anxiety and panic attacks. It was following this diagnosis that he decided to submit a workers’ compensation claim.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal was asked in this case to consider whether the employee had suffered from a ‘disease’ within the meaning of Section 5B of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (Cth), that was contributed to, to a significant degree by the employee’s employment, and if so, whether the ‘disease’ was a result of reasonable administrative action taken in a reasonable manner.
The insurer argued that the lack of medical records did not support the employee’s contention that he had been suffering in 2017. This argument was dismissed by the Tribunal as the employee was not aware of any psychiatric condition until he received his diagnosis in 2018. This is not uncommon as it can take months if not years for people to understand that physical symptoms they may be experiencing are in fact related to a mental health condition. To then go through the process of seeking mental health advice and ultimately receiving a diagnosis can understandably take a significant time.
The insurer also tried to argue that the employee had been diagnosed with depression in 2010 after his mother had passed away, and that this predisposed him to develop a psychological condition. The Tribunal dismissed this argument and found that this was “part of the vicissitudes of ordinary life, rather than something that was significantly likely to have caused the applicant’s depression”.
The Tribunal was convinced by the employee’s argument that his psychological condition arose due to the increased duties, longer hours and stress caused by adverse comments by his supervisor. The Tribunal found that the employee’s condition was contributed to, to a significant degree by his employment. Further, that his condition was not the result of reasonable administrative action taken in a reasonable manner, with respect to his employment.
You can imagine how much further distress and anxiety the denial of the claim by the ATO caused the worker in having to defend his position after lodging a legitimate claim. This is a typical reaction by many employers who feel embarrassed that their systems and culture may not be supportive enough for their workers. The workers’ compensation insurers (e.g. WorkCover) also take an adversarial position on claims and effectively treat the injured worker like a criminal. This can cause huge problems with the injured worker’s treatment and recovery – sometimes the stress and anxiety of proving their claim can subsume the original psychological injury.
Many injured workers are unaware of their rights and simply abandon their claims because of the process being too difficult. As with most insurance companies, they will try to find any reason to deny claims and, in most cases, it is not until you challenge the decision that you will get any justice. It helps to have an experienced lawyer in your corner!
Understanding your rights and how to access the treatment and compensation you need for work-related injuries
Mental health conditions and burnout may amount to an ‘injury’ for the purposes of claiming workers’ compensation. If you have suffered significant work-related stress, burnout, or other psychological condition, it is not enough to prove that the injury occurred at work. Presently a worker must also prove that the work-related incident was ‘a significant contributing factor’ to the development of the psychological injury. Often this might be determined upon the opinion of a treating practitioner. Even if medical opinion is that the work incident was a significant contributing factor to the injury, the claim may still be rejected if the incident constitutes ‘reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way’.
At Attwood Marshall Lawyers, we have a leading team of experienced compensation lawyers who understand the difficulty of making workers’ compensation claims for psychological injuries and mental health conditions.
We have already seen a significant rise in enquiries from workers across all industries wanting to understand their rights and what options are available to them after being diagnosed with work-related stress and psychological conditions.
If you need advice, our compensation lawyers can immediately assess your claim to provide you with advice about your specific matter and explain the steps you can take and your likely prospects of success to make a workers’ compensation claim.
Dealing with WorkCover and other workers’ compensation insurance providers can be overwhelming and monotonous. We can help you navigate the claim’s process and take care of this for you so that you can focus on your health and recovery.
For a free, no-obligation consultation, contact our Compensation Law Department on 1800 621 071 at any time.
If you or anyone you know needs help, please reach out to:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- ReachOut at reachout.com