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Tribunal overturns ‘punching bag’ claim

The worker claimed that abusive phone calls contributed to his depression.
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Tribunal overturns ‘punching bag’ claim

Tribunal overturns ‘punching bag’ claim

15 October 2020

A Tribunal has found that a major bank is not liable for the psychological injury of a worker who claimed that exposure to abusive phone calls from angry customers had significantly contributed to his depression. The evidence persuaded the Tribunal’s Deputy President that the worker’s condition was more likely to have arisen from troubling personal issues.

The psychological injury claim

The worker had been employed since February 2017 as a Contact Centre Service Advisor within the Direct Consumer Servicing Unit of a major bank.

In September that year he saw his doctor about severe lower back pain. The GP diagnosed lumbar nerve root compression and referred him to two specialists. The man’s asthma and sleep apnoea were also discussed.

By the end of the year his back pain resulted in his taking three months off work. This was followed by a series of medical consultations with a neurosurgeon, a rheumatologist, a gastroenterologist, a pain specialist and a physiotherapist. He was given sacroiliac injections and was prescribed exercises, anti-inflammatories, hydrotherapy and painkillers, but his back pain remained problematic.

He gained 20 kilos and consulted his GP about his feelings of depression. The doctor noted he was unhappy with his job and had financial difficulties.

In late June 2018, he had a difficult phone call with a customer asking for a refund. The customer allegedly yelled at him and demand to speak to a manager.

He left work after the call, telling his team leader that the call had upset him and personal non-work matters were also affecting his work and distracting him, including his then partner’s miscarriage, his father having multiple sclerosis, his partner having significant surgery and consequent infections, and the medication he was taking for depression that made his vision blurry and affected how his mind worked and felt. Later in the day he sought help from his GP.

The following month he consulted a psychiatrist, who noted he was having anxiety and panic attacks at work. These episodes often occurred after a phone call with an aggressive customer, but often with no trigger. His GP liaised with his rehabilitation provider and said his problem appeared to be chronic, and that he’d benefit from both psychological and psychiatric support but he could not afford it.

After weeks of ongoing difficulties, he stopped going to work in August and did not return. In October 2018 he submitted a workers compensation claim for ‘anxiety disorder, panic attacks, agoraphobia’ which he said he first noticed in June, and had not presented for work since August that year.

His employer decided in December 2018 that the man’s employment was not a significant contributing factor to either the onset or aggravation of the claimed mental illness. The worker asked for this decision to be reviewed, but in February 2019 the employer affirmed its earlier decision.

The worker sought a review of this decision, and his case was heard in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal of Australia.

In the Tribunal

The worker gave evidence that clients were sometimes extremely angry with the bank when they called. He said he felt like he was a ‘punching bag’ for the bank’s customers. Despite this he’d received positive feedback and a customer service award in June 2018 for his work.

However, on consideration of multiple medical reports – including a psychiatric opinion (pre-dating the workers comp claim) that the worker had a ‘genetic vulnerability to mood disorders’ – and other evidence, the Deputy President of the Tribunal concluded that the man’s depressive disorder and anxiety resulted from a number of significant pre-existing and predisposing factors. He was satisfied that the worker’s employment with the bank was not a significant contributing factor to the development or aggravation of the man’s condition.

The Tribunal therefore affirmed the employer’s decision to deny liability.

The bottom line: For a worker to be entitled to compensation for a psychological injury, there must be persuasive evidence that the work contributed to a significant degree to the development or aggravation of the condition.

Read the judgment

Plummer and National Australia Bank Limited (Compensation) [2020] AATA 3759 (25 September 2020)

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