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According to Safe Work Australia, the national body responsible for improving work health and safety and workers’ compensation arrangements across Australia, mental health injuries are on the rise.

The data shows a significant increase in claims for work-related mental health conditions over the past ten years and the biggest increase in the number of claims for any type of injury.

It also shows that workplace mental health injuries lead to significantly more time off work and higher compensation than any other physical injury.

Why are we seeing an increase in mental health injury claims?

As the stigma around accessing mental health services gradually decreases, more workers are feeling empowered to claim for their mental injuries.

On top of this, many workers are exposed to traumatic events at work, which can lead to mental injuries as a result. This is particularly true for frontline occupations such as police, ambulance, correctional, and healthcare workers (particularly nurses and other hospital workers).

Victorian reforms

Given this increase in mental injury claims, governments are taking note and implementing changes to legislation to tighten how we define and compensate for mental injuries.

For example, the reforms introduced to Victorian WorkCover legislation from 31 March 2024 will result in fewer claims accepted for mental injuries because of an exclusion for injuries predominately caused by stress or burnout resulting from traumatic events that are typical in their work.

Common law claims

If an injured worker has an accepted statutory claim for an injury, they may also be able to pursue a common law claim for damages to compensate them for future losses, pain, and suffering.

To be able to pursue a common law claim for an injury caused by exposure to traumatic incidents at work, it has traditionally been very difficult to prove that an employer was negligent. That is, proving that they failed to provide a safe system of work and that had they done so, the worker would not have suffered an injury.

There have been arguments that for frontline workers, exposure to trauma is just ‘the nature of the job’. Further, it has been argued that due to the complexities of psychiatric injuries, it was difficult for an employer (who is not an expert in psychiatric injuries) to predict if a worker was going to suffer an injury and, therefore, take action to protect them.

Until recent times, the case law effectively said that unless a worker was showing obvious signs of distress and injury, an employer did not have to enquire about a worker’s mental health.

Case example: Kozarov v State of Victoria

The High Court, in the 2022 case Kozarov v State of Victoria, determined that this was wrong. In workplaces where there is an inherent and obvious danger to mental health (like the work many frontline workers perform), the employer cannot just wait for signs of psychiatric illness to appear before they need to act.

In such workplaces, the employer is required to be proactive in managing psychiatric risks from the commencement of a worker’s employment, not just when and after a worker demonstrates signs of psychiatric injury. 

What measures can employers put in place?

What is a reasonable response to the risk will still depend on the occupation and the individual facts.

In occupations such as police, ambulance, and correctional officers, we expect to see an employee assistance program easily accessible and encouraged by the employer.

After a traumatic event, the employer may also need to perform proper welfare checks on their affected employees.

What should you do if you feel your mental health is suffering due to your work?

If you find yourself in a situation where you are suffering from psychological symptoms as a result of your work, the best step to protect yourself is to get medical advice as soon as possible. Reporting early symptoms to your employer and asking for support would also be ideal, and if they do not appropriately support you, it may give rise to a common law action.

Dedicated workers' compensation claim lawyers

Our specialist work injury lawyers are here to help. If you've suffered an injury at work that has affected your physical or psychological wellbeing, we can help you get back on track so you can focus on getting better. Find out how we can assist you with your work injury claim.

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We have lawyers who specialise in a range of legal claims who travel to Australian Capital Territory. If you need a lawyer in Canberra or elsewhere in Australian Capital Territory, please call us on 1800 675 346.

We have lawyers who specialise in a range of legal claims who travel to Tasmania. If you need a lawyer in Hobart, Launceston or elsewhere in Tasmania, please call us on 1800 675 346.