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Workers’ psych injuries not due to alcohol or personal matters

Employers’ attempts to hold personal matters responsible for psych injuries.
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Workers’ psych injuries not due to alcohol or personal matters

Workers’ psych injuries not due to alcohol or personal matters

23 February 2021

By Gaby Grammeno

Two recent cases have shown how employers’ attempts to hold personal matters responsible for workers’ psychological injuries can be overturned by a tribunal. In the first case, the employer relied on a psychiatrist’s report asserting the worker’s ‘heavy drinking’ was to blame; in the second, the employer tried to argue that a colleague’s action was not work-related.

Heavy drinking?

The first case involved a primary school teacher who attributed her anxiety symptoms to an incident during a case conference about a student with disabilities.

The teacher had responsibilities in relation to a number of high-needs students, on top of a heavy workload. She was generally able to cope, until a meeting with the parents of one of the students with disabilities and a number of other staff members.

The teacher said that the child’s mother had been at times aggressive, disrespectful and short-tempered, and had been talking over her.

The mother had reportedly become very angry at a psychologist’s office in the past. The teacher said the mother was suspected of a condition known as ‘Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy’, which is a form of child abuse. The teacher said this possibility had stressed her, along with changes in the child’s behaviour that had caused concern.

The teacher had then received an email from a dietitian saying that the mother was wanting a feeding device to be put into the child, and had wanted the teacher to document several times a day the child’s eating behaviour and his levels of energy. She said she’d felt overwhelmed and consulted the principal.

Later, on feeling unwell she had visited her GP, who found her blood pressure was elevated.

When the teacher was later assessed by a psychiatrist, she admitted when questioned about her alcohol consumption that she had formed a habit of drinking one glass a day of champagne while cooking dinner.

The psychiatrist asserted in his report that the teacher’s alcohol use was the major significant contributing factor to her current symptoms.

The employer relied on this assessment to deny liability for the teacher’s stress, but the commissioner did not consider there was a factual or evidentiary basis supporting the psychiatrist’s conclusions.

The commissioner took the view that the employer’s evidence would not have any ‘reasonable chance’ of enabling the employer to resist the worker’s claim in a final hearing.

Read the judgment

The Roman Catholic Church Trust Corporation of the Archdiocese of Tasmania t/as St Anthony's Catholic School v P. [2021] TASWRCT 5 (10 February 2021)

Restraining order

In the second case, the worker was employed as a supervisor in the finance section of a state government department. She applied for workers comp claiming that she suffered an adjustment disorder with depressed and anxious mood.

She attributed her psychological condition to a co-worker’s actions – in a meeting, the co-worker had verbally abused her in a raised voice, pointing a finger at her. The co-worker had then applied for a restraining order against her on the basis of a number of allegations which were later shown to be false.

Her employer contended that the supervisor was mostly upset by having a restraining order placed against her, and that the restraining order had nothing to do with her employment.

In the tribunal, the supervisor argued that the restraining order was work-related, as it was addressed to her and served on her at the workplace, and involved work-related allegations.

The commissioner concluded that the injury arose as a result of an employment relationship between the supervisor and the co-worker. It follows from this that the worker’s employment was the major or most significant contributing factor to the injury.

The employer’s rejection of the claim was therefore dismissed. The worker was entitled to workers compensation benefits.

Read the judgment

The State of Tasmania (Department of Health) v S. [2021] TASWRCT 3 (3 February 2021)

The bottom line: The findings in both cases were that the psychological injuries could not legitimately be blamed on non-work-related matters. Inter-personal aggression and conflict can have a significant psychological impact on some individuals.

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