'Unsympathetic' employer triggered psych injury

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'Unsympathetic' employer triggered psych injury

A government worker has been awarded compensation after she successfully argued a recurring psychiatric condition stemmed from her employer's 'unsympathetic' and 'unsupportive' response.

A woman’s psychiatric condition, caused by unsympathetic treatment in 2006, recurred again in 2009 and 2014.

A tribunal ruled she was entitled to workers compensation, including refunding of medical expenses, and also to compensation for permanent impairment.

Abusive phone calls and unsupportive superiors 

A woman employed by the Child Support Agency responded to telephone calls from stressed and abusive persons. For the first few years she managed well because she felt she was supported by team leaders and managers. In 2005, her then team leader was critical of her and she felt unsupported. She developed eating and sleeping difficulties and saw a psychiatrist. Her compensation claim according to the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 was settled, though she felt her symptoms were not fully resolved.

In 2009, the woman again reacted badly to an abusive telephone call, had problems with her team leader and could not sleep, eat or indeed function either at home or at work. She felt that management was unsupportive, unsympathetic and had increased pressure on her when she had been asking for support. She felt it was necessary to retire from her employment in October 2010 although she was only 56 years old. 

The employer disputed the woman’s second compensation claim on the basis that her condition had been contributed to, to a significant degree, by reasonable administration action taken in a reasonable manner. However, she appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, who found in 2011 that she had suffered an injury within the meaning of the Act, namely an aggravation of an adjustment disorder with anxiety and depressed mood, and was entitled to compensation.

In 2013, the woman considered seeking alternative employment because her husband was unwell and unable to work. However, the more she thought about returning to work, the more her mental health issues began to return. Her psychiatrist put her back on medication and declared her unemployable. She obtained a disability support pension.

In 2014, a friend asked her why she had not claimed for her invalidity when she she retired, and she resented that the employer had not advised her about this option. 

Three decisions rejecting the woman’s claims

In 2015, the woman claimed an ‘invalidity pension’ from Comcare, as from her retirement date. Later she also claimed medical expenses since retirement, and later still she claimed for permanent impairment. She claimed that her illness remained the same as in 2009 and 2011.

Comcare did not accept that it remained the same and rejected all three claims. 

Previous condition had returned

The woman turned to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for a further review, where deputy president Rayment formed the impression she was truthful and reliable when giving evidence.

A psychiatrist whose evidence also was accepted as reliable confirmed the woman’s condition had been caused by the way she had been treated by her employer. She had never fully recovered from the 2009 illness, which had never gone into complete remission but resurfaced and become chronic. Therefore it was compensable and her medical expenses should also be refunded.

The deputy president examined the level of the woman’s permanent impairment and concluded that a 15 per cent impairment should be applied in this case.

All three reviewable decisions were set aside and the matter was remitted to Comcare for calculation of the woman’s monetary entitlements.

Read the judgment

Pedrosa-Hart and Comcare (Compensation) [2018] AATA 4225 (13 November 2018)
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