Consider the following scenario:

A worker injures themselves at work, just going about their business, doing their normal duties.  They see a doctor, and the doctor tells them that they hurt themselves at work because they are in an unsafe workplace.

So that worker tells their employer.  Their employer ignores them, or dismisses it, or says it’s not the worker’s own fault, or possibly that the worker isn’t even injured, and it’s not the employer’s problem.  Meanwhile, the insurer declines that the worker has injured themselves at work, in fact, agrees with the employer, and says the worker is not injured.  So the worker keeps working, while that injury gets worse, and worse, and worse.  They can’t get treatment for their injury, because they can’t afford it, and they have to keep working, or else they won’t have any money to live on.

Eventually, the worker is no longer able to work anymore.

Actually, the worker can’t work anywhere because of their injury. Nobody will hire them.

The above is an unfortunate scenario, and what’s even more unfortunate, is that it is a scenario that I come across too frequently.

Now, imagine in the above scenario, that the injury in question was a broken leg.  Pretty far-fetched, right?  Surely the employer, and the insurer, would accept that a worker broke their leg at work, and they would not be expected to continue working on that broken leg.

The employer and insurer would treat the injury, give the worker an appropriate amount of time off work and give them suitable duties, until that worker was fully recovered and ready to return to work.

That’s what normally happens.

However, let’s consider something different.

Imagine the worker in the above scenario has suffered a psychological injury.  Ask yourself, and really ask yourself, is the above suddenly that far-fetched?  A worker comes to an employer, says they have suffered anxiety and depression because of work, but the employer doesn’t believe them. The insurer doesn’t believe them either, so the worker keeps working, until their condition deteriorates to the point where they can’t work at all.

This week is Mental Health Week.  10 October 2017 was World Mental Health Day.

To this day, the recognition and acceptance of mental health and psychological injury is still something that people struggle with, if they themselves have never had to deal with it.

Take a recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald about an injured worker, Helen Frances (name changed), a primary school teacher in NSW who attempted suicide due to bullying by her school principal, and then isolation by colleagues for a period over 12-months.

Helen described her workplace culture as “toxic,”, “disengaged,” and “unhappy.” So she took it upon herself to discuss this with her school principal.  That proved to be a mistake.

Why?  After that discussion, Helen started hearing vicious rumours about herself.  Other staff did not want to be seen with her in the presence of the principal.  The school principal would then humiliate her in front of colleagues and students.  Suddenly, Helen’s support network was torn away from her. She was humiliated, and she was abandoned.

“I can’t even begin to explain what that does to one’s entire psyche,” Helen said.

Of anything in this article, that is potentially the most important sentence you can read, because imagine a person who is now psychologically damaged, trying to describe to you what is going on.  It is somewhat counter-intuitive.  It’s akin to asking a person with broken hands to write out their difficulties.

Helen would reach a tipping point and try to take her own life.  When faced with a work environment that was destructive, difficult personal financial circumstances, and no other job prospects, Helen felt she had no answers, so tried to create one of her own.

Helen later lodged a workers compensation claim for post‑traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.  She would proceed with a successful workers compensation claim, receive weekly wage benefits, medical expenses, a lump sum benefit, and ultimately sue her employer in negligence.

And why was she able to commence and resolve such a claim? Because her employer had allegedly failed to “act appropriately to eliminate the risk to Helen of her psychiatric injury.”

Helen’s case is instructive.

Firstly, her employer had allowed a work environment to very easily become an unsafe workplace that was damaging to one of its workers.  Employers need to be mindful of that.

And secondly, Helen’s case is very far from isolated.  The circumstances of what causes the injury may vary from case to case, but the injury itself is an all-too frequent and common occurrence.

A psychological injury is so much more than having an emotional reaction.  It is about suffering from a recognised psychological condition and damage that can result in nightmares, flashbacks, depression, nervous system shutdown, social isolation, breakdown in relationships, and physical manifestations such as illness, physical shaking, and chronic bouts of tearfulness.

We’ve also seen enough psychologically injured army veterans and emergency services workers to now know that psychological injuries, such as PTSD and depression, are very real, and very damaging.

Whether we like it or not, whether each person individually recognises psychological injury and mental trauma, importantly, the current law in New South Wales indeed recognises it.

Psychological injury and your mental well‑being are real.  Employers, and to be sure, employees, have a duty to not only look after themselves in a workplace physically, but psychologically as well.

As Helen’s case demonstrates, not only are we talking about long-term and life-long damage, in some cases, we’re talking life or death.

So use Mental Health Week as an opportunity to stop and take stock.  Your well‑being, or someone else’s, may depend on it.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 44 or Kid’s HelpLine on 1800 55 1800.

Image: SmartCompany

Karlo Tychsen

Karlo Tychsen

Personal Injury Lawyer

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