Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work – The Future of Work is Good Work

Paul O’Connor, CEO, Comcare

The future of work is to have good work. Good work is work that prevents harm and keeps our workers healthy and safe. It is work that promotes worker health, wellbeing and resilience and work that supports workers of all health and personal circumstances to participate in work.

The workplace plays a key role in allowing us to lead a contributing life yet sadly mental health is one of the major barriers that people face to a life in work.

Too many workers are missing out on work due to mental ill health or caring for someone with a mental illness. Too many workers are being harmed at work and are leaving the workforce. They are missing out on the work identity, social connections, sense of community and financial security that comes from being in work.

The National Mental Health Commission Report Card A Contributing Life: the 2012 National Report Card on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention shows that Australia is not tracking well for workforce participation and mental health.

  • 32% of people with a mental health condition are not in the labour force compared with 21% of the general population
  • Only 38% of people with a mental health condition are in full time work compared with 55% of the general population

Our Workers’ Compensation experience

Our workers compensation data shows that aspects of work can be harmful to health. The trend shows a decrease in the number of straightforward injuries however, over recent years there have been an increasing proportion of psychological injuries, with these injuries now accounting for 1 in 10 accepted claims but over 30% of total claim cost in 2011-12.

Delays in rehabilitation and failure to provide suitable return to work duties is having a further impact in individual and financial terms. During 2011-12 55% of psychological injury claims that have four weeks of lost time continue on to at least 26 weeks lost time. This is a rise from 44% in 2008-09.

We need to get better at preventing harm from happening in the first place. This is through the way that work is designed and managed.

Comcare’s regulatory approach to protect the mental health and safety of our workers includes a risk based analysis to respond to incidences of psychological harm, inducing bullying and harassment. We work with our Scheme employers to assess their policies, procedures and training that demonstrate whether the workplace is taking all reasonable practical actions to address and minimise the risk.

The workplace also needs to get better at recognising and responding to early warning signs including withdrawal behaviours, decline in performance and unplanned absenteeism. Comcare is partnering with the Australian Public Service Commission to develop guidelines to provide messaging and build the capability of our managers to do this.

We are also seeing delays in the rehabilitation, recovery and return to work of many of our federal workers. The longer that a worker is off work – the less likely it is that they will return to work.

We need to get better at focusing on a recovery plan to make sure that we are not only working on workplace incidence prevention in the first place – to stop the harm happening, but to make sure that the return to work, the recovery and management of these claims is appropriate and that people are able to recover, rehabilitate and get on with their lives.

Our avenues of influence

Comcare’s avenues of influence for our employers is to combine the traditional WHS approach of preventing harm at work, with a contemporary social corporate responsibility of promoting mental health and wellbeing at work and supporting people experiencing mental ill health at work.

We need to prevent the harm from happening in the first place.

This includes using the time that our workers are at work to promote their health – and realise the health benefits of good work.

People with mental health conditions and those caring for someone with a mental health condition must be provided with services and support to participate in work. We need to do this by providing good work that matches a workers knowledge, skills, health and personal circumstances to the work. We need to have conversations with our employees about their health and personal circumstances and adjust the work to support them to stay on the job.

Getting this right

Getting this right will have many benefits. It will benefit individuals, their families and the community. It will also benefit organisations as they will become employers of choice, have lower rates of absenteeism and staff turnover, higher worker satisfaction, engagement and productivity, lower workers compensation claims, reduced premiums.

It will really have great benefits for all of us.

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