Australian seems to be leading in the investigation of the (secondary) familial and social impacts of work-related death. New research from Lynda Matthews, Michael Quinlan and Philip Bohle to be publicly released soon focused on the mental health of bereaved families after a relative’s death. They found
“At a mean of 6.40 years post-death, 61 percent of participants had probable PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), 44 percent had probable MDD (major depressive disorder), and 43 percent had probable PGD (prolonged grief disorder).”
These are significant percentages of mental illness that relates to a specific type of trauma and should be included in consideration of :
- workers compensation entitlements and eligibility
- post incident support at work and by employers
- new categories of leave entitlements and work flexibility
- the types of grief counselling and support available
The researchers point out that a lot of mental health and trauma research has occurred,but rarely does this look at the effects on family members of deceased workers.
This is different
Significantly the researcher differentiate workplace fatality effects from many of the common non-work comparisons. They write:
“Although broader evidence on responses to traumatic deaths provides some guidance regarding families’ experiences following a sudden workplace death, distinctive characteristics, particularly in terms of regulatory responses, mean that they are not directly comparable to sudden deaths from crimes of violence, suicide, or road trauma.”(emphasis added)
This should make many safety advocates stop and think, and reassess their comparison reference points. Workplace death operates, as the researchers note, from its own legal basis, through its own compensation rules and processes and is considered by society, somehow, as a lesser event as a result. This can worsen the mental health impacts of a workplace death on relatives who are made to feel marginalised in their grieving. Matthews, Quinlan and Bohle write:
“Given this context, it is possible that the impact of sudden workplace deaths on families is exacerbated because their loved ones died in working environments in which safety is apparently heavily regulated by OHS law, and workers should be protected from catastrophic injury.”
They suggest that the best way to minimise mental health impacts on bereaved families is to provide:
“….satisfactory information and support following a traumatic bereavement is central to alleviating distress and facilitating adaptation…”
Some OHS regulators have attempted to improve this situation in the past but information and support has been dependent on short term funding or grants which are achieved through a competitive process. Few have integrated the information and support into their core operations. This may be because many OHS Regulators in Australia have a dual role of investigating deaths and providing financial compensation, and they are cautious to avoid operational and structural conflicts.
However, it may also be because all the legal focus goes on the fatality and not the supplementary psychological injuries that occur away from a specific workplace. This secondary impact is an accepted part of physical injury – cleaning someone else’s contaminated work clothes, for instance – but not for mental health conditions.
Part of the importance of this research is that it is not a literature review, although the researchers are well across a draft of relevant studies. The research produces evidence all of its own; research that has rarely appeared elsewhere and that is multinational. Some of its strengths is that the research looked at a neglected section of the community, bereaved families of traumatic workplace deaths. It looked at the situation over several jurisdictions and found remarkably similar responses suggesting that
“… the gaps and problems identified are not confined to a particular country, and the same may apply to remedial measures.”
A further strength is that the survey sample extended beyond bereaved families to inspectorates, workers’ compensation authorities, coroners police and institutions such as insurers, unions, employers, and lawyers.
Matthews, Quinlan and Bohle summarise the research findings as having:
“…. produced promising initial evidence that families who experience a traumatic workplace death are at increased risk of developing PTSD, MDD, and PGD, and that several information and support variables are associated with increased or decreased risk of developing these conditions.”
Not only does this evidence demand a rethink of how relatives are supported and informed following a traumatic work-related death, it should also cause many of the OHS regulators, politicians and safety advocates to review their insistence of direct involvement of grieving relatives in regulatory change and formal policy discussion when, from the evidence in this research, those very people are at increased risk of mental ill-health.