Feeling Down Down Under?

July 5th, 2007 by

We read in the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald that workers comp benefits have been reduced for government workers. COMMONWEALTH public servants are no longer entitled to claim damages for accidents on the way to work or during lunch breaks. In addition, participation in the public service lunchtime football league is no longer covered.
Claims for stress have also been severely curtailed under strict new guidelines on what constitutes mental injury. Public servants will no longer be able to claim damages for stress after disciplinary action, reprimand from a superior or a bad performance appraisal.
The unions are not happy about the reduction in benefits (but then, why would any union endorse a loss of benefits?). Responding to the elimination of coverage for lunchtime soccer players, union head Stephen Jones comments that it is “counterproductive” to discourage public servants from keeping fit.
“Why, when it’s known that exercise can reduce workplace stress and reduce compensation claims for stress, would the government be making it harder to participate in these activities?”
Insurance actuaries would respond, naturally, that the risks inherent in soccer are not contemplated in the rates for government office workers. If stateside rates can provide a point of comparison, most office workers would fall under rates well below $1.00 per hundred of payroll, while soccer players would likely be around $30.00 per hundred. The issue here is not discouraging fitness, but separating high risk fitness activities from work.
Stressed Out
Previously, public servants could claim for stress if a reprimand or disciplinary procedure exacerbated an existing mental health condition. Now, a successful claimant must prove that stress or mental injury was caused by unjust behaviour.
Once again, Mr. Jones is not pleased: “There is an acknowledgment that in the past perhaps some individuals may have taken advantage of [it]. But if the change to how stress claims are assessed and compensated was being matched by a vigorous attempt to reduce workplace bullying, people would be more comfortable with it – this is just a smash-and-grab exercise.”
That’s an interesting and rather odd metaphor – comparing a reduction in benefits to breaking a plate glass window and snatching something valuable. I believe he is saying that it’s unfair to reduce the standard without increasing management accountability – which would have been a point well taken.
Mental health groups in Australia have also opposed the changes. The national depression initiative beyondblue stated that the changes would “make it more difficult for individuals with a psychological illness/injury to make a successful claim for workers’ compensation”. This is undoubtedly true. The real question, of course, is finding an appropriate level of accountability for employers. If you have to pay workers comp for routine personnel actions, your costs are going to spiral out of control.
The Pendulum Swings
From the Insider’s perspective, it appears that our colleagues down under are simply trying to bring their comp coverage into the 21st century. The pendulum has swung away from injured workers. In the USA, most state laws long ago eliminated coverage for routine commutes to and from work and during recreational activities, unless the latter were sponsored by the employer. As for stress claims, we now look for work to be the “predominant cause” of the stress. We’ve come a long way from the California gold standard that awarded benefits if 10 per cent of the stress was work related. Now that was a standard only a claimant attorney could love!
NOTE TO READERS: For the next few weeks, the Insider will publish on a reduced summer schedule. We are planning to enjoy a little time off and recommend that you do likewise.