Psychological Injury in the Workplace

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Psychological injury can be broadly defined as an observable or measurable reduction in the intellectual functioning or emotional state of an individual, compared to that person’s normal level of function. For this to be accepted within the current worker’s compensation system, this change must be able to be diagnosed using either medical or psychological definitions of an illness or disorder.

Many employers find it difficult to accept that the workplace can have a psychological impact on employees. However, when you consider that individuals in full time employment generally spend 8-10 hours per day at work, spend more time with colleagues than friends and family members and use their profession to form their identity, it is evident that the workplace plays a crucial role in the lives of employees.

Traditionally, psychological injury had been thought to be caused by specific work factors that cause “stress”. These specific work factors could include high workloads, difficult clients and difficult, repetitive or unrewarding work. Under this model, it was assumed that one or more of these factors being present in the workplace would cause an increase in the likelihood that an individual would suffer from a psychological injury.

However, recent research indicates that there are more important factors in the workplace in relation to psychological injury. It was found that relationships and support at work are more predictive of outcome and more highly reported as a factor in psychological injury claims than any other factor. That is, the more supported and better understood by their employer an injured worker feels, the better the likelihood for a successful return to work.

This finding has far reaching implications for the way psychological injury claims are managed. It indicates a change in behaviour and attitude is required, in which employers and the workplace can play a key role in making the return to work process for psychological injury claims more successful. This emphasises the importance of human relations, interpersonal relationships and managing conflict above specific work factors. With appropriate collaborative management and intervention, this finding provides evidence that there are positive steps that can be taken to prevent and reduce psychological injury claims.

For example, open and clear communication, direct lines of reporting, positive interpersonal relationships and a supportive environment with an emphasis on employee health and wellbeing can increase employees’ perception of support. A workplace environment that supports employees though allowing flexible arrangements for the care of children and personal health can also assist to communicate that the employee is valued and supported on a day-to-day basis. Importantly for psychological injury claims, a workplace that attempts to offer a variety of suitable duties, is accepting and supportive of the injured worker, and that works in partnership with the worker and treating parties in a mutual effort to return the individual to work will be viewed as supportive and can positively influence the outcome of a psychological injury claim.

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