CBA responds to mental health scandal

Sacking an employee who was diagnosed with depression and taking years to compensate him has backfired on the Commonwealth Bank.

CBA responds to mental health scandal

One of Australia’s biggest banks has responded to backlash over its harsh treatment of an employee who was fired after a mental breakdown and left to wait years for an insurance pay-out.

The Commonwealth Bank’s life insurance business CommInsure has responded to allegations of unethical and unscrupulous behaviour in its life insurance business, and following a recent Four Corners report, will likely be a target of an ASIC investigation.

CBA chief executive Ian Narev admitted his company had "a long way to go" to better help employees suffering from mental health issues.

"I accept that we, like many big businesses, have got much more work to do to bring our understanding of mental illness up to the level it ought to be at," he was quoted in The Australian.

The head of advocacy group Beyond Blue has criticized CBA’s treatment of employee Matthew Attwater, who was “ill-health retired” after suffering from major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Beyond Blue chairman Jeff Kennett, who described the bank’s actions as disgraceful, said the bank had "a great deal to answer for".

"For the Commonwealth Bank … to be doing this sort of thing to one of their own employees is disgraceful. Why do they get away with it? Because they're big," Kennett was reported saying in The Australia.

Attwater, once one of the bank’s most prized employees who won the "best of the best" award in 2010, suffered major depression and PTSD in 2013 after a violent assault.

With his focus at work negatively affected, his employer relied on a psychiatrist’s report which found Attwater would not be able to do his job “at any foreseeable time in the future or in any on-going manner” to support the decision to end his employment.

However when making an insurance claim, CommInsure used the same report to find that he was actually capable of returning to work.

"How can one department say 'no sorry you're so disabled that you can no longer work for us and that you'll never ever be able to work in any industry' and then an insurance assessor looks at that and says 'well no not really, you can, there's more things that you can do'," Attwater was quoted in The Australian.

CommInsure took two-and-a-half years to assess Attwater's claim, during which time he was forced to sleep in his car.

Soon after being interviewed by Four Corners last month, Attwater's case was finally settled.

According to his lawyer, Attwater’s was a straightforward case where he suffered a very severe injury.

Kennett said insurance companies should not be solely motivated by greed.

"Please remember these companies are taking premiums every year and then they deny a person that claims," Kennett says.

"They don't offer to pay the premiums back but they will invariably, as seems to be the case here, delay the process, they weaken the individual so these cashed up organisations literally trample over the individual rights of so many citizens."

Patricia Ryan from The Workplace employment lawyers says employers need to do more to manage mental health in the workplace, or risk legal backlash.

“Mental health problems, especially depression and anxiety, are common in the community,” Ryan told HC Online.

“While some people have a long-term mental illness, many may have mental illness for a relatively short period of time,” she says.

However, Ryan says the vast majority of workers with mental illness succeed in their chosen career while managing their mental illness.

She reminds employers of their legal obligations in relation to the management of mental illness in the workplace.

These obligations come from a number of state and Federal laws as follows:

  1. Ensuring health and safety: WHS (work health safety) legislation requires you to ensure your workplace is safe and healthy for all workers and does not cause ill health or aggravate existing conditions.
  2. Avoiding discrimination: disability discrimination legislation requires you to ensure your workplace does not discriminate against or harass workers with mental illness. You are also required to make reasonable adjustments to meet the needs of workers with mental illness.
  3. Ensuring privacy: privacy legislation requires you to ensure personal information about a worker’s mental health status is not disclosed to anyone without the worker's consent.
  4. Avoiding adverse actions: you are also required under the Fair Work Act 2009 to ensure your workplace does not take any adverse action against a worker because of their mental illness.


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