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The mental health effect of COVID-19 – increase in WorkCover psychological claims during pandemic

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Teachers, educators, and healthcare workers are among the most likely to experience work-related stress and psychological injury during the pandemic, explains Attwood Marshall Lawyers Compensation Law Senior Paralegal Amy Lewis.

Introduction

Mental health has long been an issue that many Australians battle, with an estimated 1 in every 5 Australians (about 5 million people) suffering from a mental illness. The rate of General Practitioners issuing mental health treatment plans has steadily increased since 2012, with 1,473,451 mental health treatment plans issued to patients in 2020.

Given the ongoing effects that COVID-19 is having on our mental wellbeing, an increase in prescribed mental health treatment plans is expected throughout 2021.

Compounding the direct risks associated with contracting COVID-19, the pandemic has significantly impacted the mental health and wellbeing of all Australians, but particularly those on ‘the front line’ in their employment. In addition to concerns about contracting COVID-19, there has also been serious psychological consequences associated with social distancing, physical isolation, cancellation of events including weddings and funerals, work and familial pressures, and financial strain, as part of the government mandated lockdowns. Working remotely or remote learning for students has also taken a toll on the mental health and wellbeing on many Australians, including parents who juggle working from home, home duties, and home-schooling their children. The same can be said for many professionals working from home and dealing with home schooling, longer working hours, and not having the emotional and energetic support from work colleagues in the office.

Isolation, restrictions, lockdowns, financial and family pressures, and anxiety about contracting the virus are particularly worrisome for those many Australians who have a pre-existing mental illness or are more susceptible to suffering psychological illness. Many have reported an increase in anxiety, depression, drug abuse and/or alcohol abuse.

It is no surprise that there has been an increase in work related ‘stress claims’ that involve the worker suffering a definitive psychological condition or injury. The most common diagnosis is depression and anxiety with a wide range of symptoms and severity.

A call for help

The current lockdown directives have triggered a spike in counselling requests from workers across Australia.

Data from counselling sessions with 13,000 Australian employees demonstrates an influx of calls asking for help.

Converge International is an Australian not-for-profit company that specialise in providing corporate mental health and psychology support. The company helps develop a healthy culture and provide support and intervention in sensitive situations.

From the 1200 companies that Converge International works with throughout Australia, employee calls requesting an appointment increased by 16% in the week commencing May 31, when Melbourne’s fourth lockdown hit. In the week following Sydney’s lockdown announcement in June, there was a 15% increase in requests for appointments.

“Whenever there’s a lockdown, anxiety-related issues go up. We know that the uncertainty of when things will end is a really big stress on people and it really does impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing,” explained Dr Jenny George, CEO of Converge International.

One particular sector that has responded significantly by asking for help where possible and lodging more WorkCover claims than any other profession is that of teachers and the education sector in general.

With remote learning the new normal every time a lockdown directive is announced, teachers have had to work much harder than ever before to prepare classes in a digital world.

Teachers – Education’s front-line workers

Teachers, principals, and other school leaders have endured continuous stress since the pandemic began. They have had to navigate change, uncertainty, and long hours.

Teachers are the front-line workers of our education system and have had to roll with the punches with reoccurring lockdowns constantly interrupting their curriculum. The everchanging shift from classroom learning to remote online learning has only added more pressure to the already demanding job.

Even before COVID-19 spread to our shores, teachers reported:

The Conversation, the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis, conducted a National Teacher Survey to gain insight into ways to support teachers with coping during the pandemic.

From 1,330 teachers surveyed,  the below key findings were noted:

  • Teachers’ concern for vulnerable students is one of the most stressful aspects of their jobs during the pandemic
  • Teachers are seeing that inequities in access to learning are magnified during this time and extend far beyond the digital divide. As schools moved to online learning, the socioeconomic disparity between city and regional schools, including government, independent and Catholic schools, became more evident.
  • Teacher burnout was reported with many teachers finding the multitude of resources and learning platforms provided to them as counterintuitive.
  • Many teachers described an initial period of uncertainty and exhaustion as the pandemic took hold in 2020.
  • Teachers struggled to keep students motivated and reported poor student behaviour, including disrespect, violence and challenging authority

The psychological impact of what the education sector is facing extends beyond teachers, with reports that four in ten Australian school principals have been subjected to violence at work in the past year. Some principals have reported that they are so stressed and exhausted that they experience self-harm thoughts.

Principals who took part in The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey in 2020 reported more burnout, stress, depression and sleeping problems now than what was recorded pre-pandemic.

Identifying workplace stress and psychological hazards

Employers can use Safe Work Australia’s online risk assessment tool to help identify and manage work-related risks to psychological health and compare themselves to other workplaces.

Work-related stress is described as a physical, mental and emotional reaction that a worker may experience when the demands of their work exceed their ability or resources to cope.

Prolonged or severe work-related stress can cause psychological injury.

Psychological hazards and risks must be treated the same as physical hazards and risks. It is estimated that poor psychological health and safety costs Australian organisations $6 billion in lost productivity.

A psychological hazard can be anything that increases the risk of work-related stress, including:

  • High or low job demands
  • Low job control
  • Poor support
  • Poor workplace relationships
  • Lack of clarity around role
  • Poor change management
  • Low recognition and reward
  • Poor organisational justice
  • Poor environmental conditions
  • Remote or isolated work (which many employees are facing with working from home during lockdowns)
  • Violent or traumatic events (these are commonly faced by first responders but can be risks across all industries).

There are four steps that all employers can take to help prevent psychological injury at work.

Step 1: Identify psychological hazards and risks by talking and listening to workers, inspecting workplaces, taking note of how workers interact, review reports and records and request feedback from your staff

Step 2: Consider what could happen if workers are exposed to the identified hazards and risks.

Step 3: Where possible, eliminate the risk. Where a risk cannot be eliminated, minimise the risk as much as possible through prevention and planning.

Step 4: Maintain, monitor and review control measures where necessary. It is important to regularly review control measures to ensure they remain effective.

One of the most powerful tools you can use to reduce the risk of psychological injuries in the workplace is the effective early intervention for all injuries and illnesses. Employers must take every reasonable step to implement systems and processes to protect their employees from risks to both their physical and mental health.

Life Insurance, Income Protection and mental health illnesses

Did you know that many life insurance policies in today’s market have blanket mental health exclusion or limitations?

It is always a good idea to review your life insurance policies to ensure you understand what you are covered for in case you suffer from a psychiatric illness.

Case Study 1:

We were recently approached by a client who had been receiving income protection payments for a psychological injury. Out of nowhere, the client received a letter from their insurer noting payments would soon cease due to the mental health limitation within their income protection policy.

The client expected to continue to receive benefits until the age of 65. Unbeknown to them, the policy was limited to a maximum two-year benefit period for recognised mental disorders. This included conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, psychosis and emotional or behavioural disorders.

It is not uncommon for policies to exclude mental health disorders altogether, regardless of severity. When applying for insurance, it is important to be honest and disclose all previous conditions.

Case Study 2:

Matthew approached our firm after lodging his own income protection claim for a psychological illness. After a few months of receiving income protection benefits, Matthew received a letter stating that payments would be ceasing as his condition was pre-existing and was not disclosed when applying for insurance. The insurer become aware of his pre-existing condition after requesting a copy of clinical notes from Matthew’s GP as part of the ongoing income protection assessment.

The insurer ceased payments and made the decision to revoke the policy based on the fact the insurer would have never issued the policy to Matthew had he told them about his pre-existing psychological condition.

If you are a casual or self-employed worker, things can become more complicated when you try and take out income protection insurance. Employees who are not full-time can find it difficult to obtain income protection insurance as most policies have minimum working hours required. Once you do find a policy that will provide cover for casual or self-employed workers, these policies seemingly have a lot of limitations, including limited or no cover for psychological conditions. 

For example, NRMA’s “essential” income protection policy (which they stopped offering as of April 2021, however honour pre-existing policies) states:

We won’t pay a benefit if the claim is caused directly or indirectly by:

— any mental health disorder, including anxiety disorders, depression and stress, disorders related to fatigue, drug or alcohol abuse.

Given the rising number of mental health issues and the ongoing effects that COVID-19 is having on many Australian’s mental health, it pays to check your life insurance policies now to ensure you are covered in the event you need to make a claim.

We’re here to help workers get the treatment and compensation they need for psychological injuries

As a leading compensation law firm, Attwood Marshall Lawyers are able to help you make a workers’ compensation claim to access the maximum amount of benefits you are entitled to if you suffer a psychological injury or illness in the course of your work.

We will take care of your claim and seek compensation for the treatment you need, so that you can get your life back on track and focus on your health and wellbeing.

If you need to make a superannuation insurance claim, we can help you. We can investigate on your behalf to determine exactly what insurance you hold and what entitlements you may be able to claim.

Whether you need to make a workers’ compensation claim or a claim on your insurance policies after suffering an injury or illness, our team can assess your claim and let you know what to expect from the start. We offer a free, no-obligation initial consultation. Contact Compensation Law Department Manager Kellie Costin on direct line 07 5506 8220, email kcostin@attwoodmarshall.com.au or free call 1800 621 071 at any time.

If you or anyone you know needs help, please reach out to:


Read more:

Injured at work? Easy steps to claim WorkCover compensation

Are you unable to work due to an injury, illness or medical condition? You may have a TPD claim!

Proving what you cannot see – Workers’ Compensation and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When was the last time you reviewed your superannuation insurance policies? Don’t assume you’re covered!

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