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Compo claims: COVID-19 takes toll on mental health

SWA has released a snapshot on workers compensation claims relating to COVID-19
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Compo claims: COVID-19 takes toll on mental health

Compo claims: COVID-19 takes toll on mental health

13 November 2020

By Gaby Grammeno

Safe Work Australia has released preliminary information on workers compensation claims relating to COVID-19. The figures point to what businesses should be looking out for, and they highlight the importance of managing the risk of mental health issues at workplaces.

COVID-19 disease claims

Almost four out of every 10 claims were from people claiming they had contracted the virus at work, or because of the kind of work they do. Workers engaged in health care and social assistance accounted for the lion’s share of these cases, not surprisingly.

In the longer term, the number of health care workers affected is likely to be considerably higher, because the figures released by Safe Work Australia represent claims received as at 31 July 2020, that is, before the second wave of cases in Victoria.

The other limitation of the data so far is that not all of the claims were accepted – 95 out of the 533 claims were rejected, either because a worker was tested for COVID-19 but found to be negative, or where there was evidence the disease was not contracted at work, or for some other reason.

Mental health impacts relating to the virus

About a third of the claims lodged were for mental health issues attributed to COVID. The workers claiming were predominantly employed as community and personal service workers, professionals, clerical and administrative workers.

There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent uncertainties and restrictions such as physical distancing and isolation can make people feel anxious, stressed and worried.

The mental health risks are widely recognised and have been acknowledged by health departments and organisations such as Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute, which have been producing guidance on why it’s important to look after your own and others’ mental health, how to stay informed and where to get help in tackling the challenges.

For example, since 9 October, 10 additional Medicare subsidised psychological therapy sessions each calendar year are available for people experiencing severe or enduring mental health impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures needed to contain it.

For employers, the challenge is to spot workers who may be at risk, and do whatever is reasonably practicable to make the working environment sufficiently supportive and flexible, especially where at-risk individuals are identified.

Who is at risk?

The Black Dog Institute advises that the people most likely to be at risk are those with pre-existing anxiety disorders, existing health anxiety (ie who worry excessively about having or contracting illnesses), and other mental health conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress.

People with high job insecurity and financial worries are also more vulnerable, and health care workers, people placed in quarantine, and individuals with life-threatening cases of COVID-19 are thought to be at increased risk of long-term mental health problems.

The strategies recommended for employers are to offer practical support such as flexible working arrangements, provide good quality information to counter rumours, misinformation and sensationalised media reporting, and let workers know about the great variety of ‘technology-enabled mental health services’ now available. These include mobile apps, telehealth, and online treatment options, which provide an efficient and practical means of delivering treatment to anxious individuals and groups.

In some workplaces, it may be necessary to provide additional training for managers and supervisors in how to identify and respond to workers at risk of mental health issues, if the business is to successfully avoid having workers take excessive sick leave or lodge workers comp claims for mental health issues.

Testing or isolation

Claims relating to testing or isolation requirements are the third largest category of COVID-related claims, though under some schemes testing and self-isolation are not compensable where a person does not develop the disease. ‘Testing or isolation’ refers to situations where workers face the risk of exposure to disease through their work. If a worker is suspected of having contracted COVID-19, but ultimately found to not have contracted the disease, they may still claim (in some jurisdictions) for medical tests or isolation requirements.

For more details from Safe Work Australia’s snapshot of COVID-19 related workers comp claims, visit the website.

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