Australia’s Comcare agency has identified a “54% increase in mental stress claims” since 2006-2007. This is of great concern to the agency, which covers the OHS and compensation needs of Australian government agencies and others, as Work Health and Safety General Manager, Neil Quarmby, outlines in a media release on 21 July 2011.
“Clearly this trend could have serious consequences for employees and employers through serious health issues and a significant loss in productivity. I am keen that employers get the message that health and safety at work is not only a physical issue but also increasingly involves mental health as well…”
The media release has generated some media attention (audio article available HERE) but often this has not focussed on the trend mentioned and instead on an element in the media release that involves the OHS issue-du-jour, workplace bullying.
“The analysis shows that while work pressure was previously the main cause of serious mental stress claims, in the last 12 months, the proportion of serious mental stress claims related to harassment or workplace bullying has increased to a level equal to that of work pressure.”
Quarmby says that an increased awareness of workplace bullying is partly responsible for this increase. Certainly this increase parallels the surge of interest throughout Australia as a response of media attention to the suicide of Brodie Panlock but much more analysis and much broader analysis is required.
The complexity of the issue of workplace mental health is illustrated be the connections above between workplace bullying, workplace stress, work pressure (workload), and harassment. Each of these elements are different, occur from different sources and are managed in different ways. It is a trap for these issues to be grouped under a collective term that may misrepresent them.
Centre of Excellence in Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work
Comcare’s media release states that it has established a Centre of Excellence in Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work. Comcare’s recent newsletter says that the Centre’s advisory committee
“The aim of this advisory group is to bring together best thinking, drawing on research, practice and new ideas to identify solutions that meet worker needs and improve scheme outcomes in psychological health and wellbeing.
The advisory group met with Comcare staff to focus on building the capacity and confidence of employers to understand and respond early to mental illness at work. The advisory group considered approaches to primary care and how Comcare can work better with general practitioners to ensure early support and early management of the claim.”
The committee consists of the following:
- Dr Peter Butterworth,
- Dr Peter Cotton,
- Professor Mark Creamer,
- Associate Professor Eoin Killackey,
- Dr Susan Long,
- Dr David Morton and
- Dr Brenda Tait.
The committee seems to be grounded in some reality through the inclusion of Dr Brenda Tait, a Canberra general practitioner, but the academic dominance of the committee should be of concern. Similarly, the focus on primary care needs to have a shopfloor relevance so that any interventions developed can be as widely applied and understood as possible.
Any initiative on mental health in the workplace needs to be supported as mental health is a neglected element of occupational health and safety but they need to be applied with caution and in a manner than ensures acceptance and success. It is also important that one element of workplace mental health does not dominate (and misrepresent) others.