What constitutes a 'mental injury' at work?

High Court reminds employers of their responsibilities and duty of care

What constitutes a 'mental injury' at work?

Employers have the duty to take reasonable steps to protect employees from mental injuries, according to the High Court of Australia in a recent ruling. This reminder was made when it ruled in favour of a former public prosecutor after she claimed to have developed post-traumatic stress disorder and secondary major depressive disorder from trauma due to her job.

The former public prosecutor worked for the Specialist Sex Offences Unit of the Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP), where she interacted with victims of trauma, while being exposed to evidence of it.

According to the victim, her course of employment under the OPP led to her mental injuries. The Supreme Court of Victoria first ruled in favour of her back in February 2020, but this was overturned later that year in November.

However, the matter was later raised to the High Court of Australia, whose panel of seven judges ruled unanimously in favour of the former public prosecutor.

The panel found that the OPP had a policy in place regarding its role in dealing with staff who are dealing with traumatic environments. However, due to its lack of popularity, it was not implemented well.

With its findings, the panel restored the decision of the original trial judge, reported ABC News, while also reinstating the $435,000 damages payout to the former public prosecutor.

Read more: How to handle a traumatised employee

What it means to employers

The recent ruling of the High Court of Australia brought back to employers the responsibility of providing employees a safe place to work for, according to the former prosecutor's lawyer.

She told ABC News that the "onus is very much on the employer to develop policies and procedures to deal with the way in which they help people to continue working [and] not expose them to trauma all the time."

WorkCover Queensland also weighed in on the decision, stressing that while the decision does not fundamentally change the nature of employer's duty of providing care, it makes employers understand their roles in preventing mental and physical injuries.

"Employers must provide a safe system of work and take steps to reduce or avoid foreseeable risks of both physical and mental harm," the agency said in a statement. "The extent of the duty of care that employers have to workers, and the steps they should take to mitigate risks, differs based on the type of workplace and role."

"In this case, the work itself was inherently risky, so the employer was obliged to take appropriate steps to reduce the risk to its employees."

According to WorkSafe, the decision may prompt employers to consider if their employees' roles put them at risk of mental or physical injuries.

"If so, employers need to put systems in place to meet that risk," it said. "It's important for employers to be on the lookout for, and have systems in place to detect, early signs of both mental and physical injury so that employees can be supported at work."


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