When we think of injuries in the workplace that may be compensatable under personal injury law, we typically associate physical injuries. It’s a big mistake because increasingly Queensland Courts are considering matters of which pertain to psychiatric injury.
What is a psychiatric injury?
The Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 states that ‘an injury is a personal injury arising out of, or in the course of, employment if for a psychiatric or psychological disorder—the employment is the major significant contributing factor to the injury’.
The Act further states that ‘an injury does not include a psychiatric or psychological disorder arising out of, or in the course of, any of the following circumstances’:
– reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way by the employer in connection with a worker’s employment
– a worker’s expectation or perception of reasonable management action being taken against a worker
– action by the authority or an insurer in connection with a worker’s application for compensation.
The recent case of Robinson v State of Queensland  QSC 165 is a sharp reminder to employers to be vigilant in taking reasonable care of his/her employees to avoid psychiatric injury particularly in the context of workplace harassment, bullying, and managerial mistreatment.
Briefly, in this case, the plaintiff, Mrs. Robinson, was a registered nurse and the District Director of Nursing at the Cape York Health Service in Weipa in Queensland. She had no historic psychological or psychiatric issues.
Mrs. Robinson alleged that she suffered a psychiatric injury as a consequence of repeated managerial mistreatment by a member of the employment team.
Allegedly, there was a number of staff involved in this mistreatment, but the Court found that it was the result, largely by omission, of Ms. Turner (District Chief Executive Officer) that these acts occurred.
Henry J stated (at para 195):
“The risk of psychiatric injury to Mrs. Robinson was reasonably foreseeable by reason of the signs progressively exhibited by Mrs. Robinson of a high and increasing degree of emotional concern and distress about Ms. Holmes’ targeting of complaints against her in the WIFs. The risk of such injury was not insignificant, particularly bearing in mind those signs fell for consideration in the light of Mrs. Robinson’s previously expressed concerns…Realistically, the taking of such elementary action would likely be the standard response of any competent manager, even if unconcerned by a risk of psychiatric injury.
Further, the Court found that the Cape York Health Service failed in their duty to take reasonable care of Mrs. Robinson in exposing her to psychiatric injury by not preventing Ms. Turner’s course of managerial mismanagement.
Henry J stated (at para 304 and 305):
“As to whether Ms. Turner’s course of managerial mistreatment of Mrs. Robinson breached the defendant’s duty to take precautions against a risk of psychiatric injury to Mrs Robinson, the risk was reasonably foreseeable by reason of the very nature of the type of behavior involved. In an era when the potentially grave psychological harm done by workplace harassment and bullying is well known, unjustified blaming, humiliation, belittling, isolation, undermining and contemptuous disregard of an employee by a CEO was conduct collectively raising a foreseeable and not insignificant risk of psychiatric injury.
The probability of potentially serious psychiatric injury from such behavior is sufficiently well known that a reasonable employer would take precautions against such conduct occurring….”
The take home message for employers who are aware of any behaviour that may be construed as bullying or harassment in their workplace is to take overt steps to deal with it.
Conversely, if you’re an employee being subject to this kind of behaviour in your place of work and it is impacting upon you, seeking legal advice early is highly recommended. Bear in mind also, that strict time limits apply in these matters.