Kerin Kenny worked so much overtime she became physically ill. Once, she was so exhausted she slept under her desk.
But it wasn’t until the bullying began that her mental health started to deteriorate.
Abused in front of other staff. Talked about behind her back. Undermined.
“There were a whole lot of little things,” Ms Kenny said. “It became a very toxic environment in the office.”
Workers’ compensation payouts for mental illnesses cost more than double those for physical illnesses, with workers off the job almost three times as long, new data from Safe Work Australia shows.
These figures highlight the huge financial toll to businesses for ignoring risks to workers’ mental health.
Ms Kenny developed panic attacks that felt like the whole world was moving and her heart would explode.
A few months later, she was in hospital diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
Ms Kenny’s employer – a leading real estate group – was forced to pay her three years of workers’ compensation.
“I’d had the best job that I’d ever had and I was achieving well,” Ms Kenny said. “And then to have that taken away from you; it was devastating.”
The median workers’ compensation payment for serious mental health claims was $24,500 in the six years up to 2015, compared to $9200 for physical ones.
This was mostly due to the time required to make work places safe for employees to return, said beyondblue head of workplace research Nick Arvanitis.
Workers with mental health problems took an average of 14.8 weeks off, whereas those with physical injuries took off 5.4.
Mr Arvanitis said workplaces with employees forced to take time off for mental illness often had entrenched bullying cultures that needed to be stamped out before their return.
He said employers could avoid enormous payouts if they addressed bullying and excessive workloads first.
It was rarely a case of a “lone wolf” bully, Mr Arvanitis said.
“That person is potentially under extreme stress themselves or is modelling the behaviours of others in the organisation, and doesn’t have the skills to provide constructive feedback.”
Mr Arvanitis said employers needed to provide clear job descriptions, flexibility, control over decision making, reasonable breaks, and recognition and reward.
Workplaces with numerous staff working overtime indicated a lack of resources, he said.
Mr Arvanitis said managers should be trained to look for signs of mental illness, such as a drop in performance or social withdrawal.
If they noticed signs, they should check in with workers and direct them to help, he said.
Six years later, Ms Kenny is working one day a week in an administration role at another company.
She wishes she had had known the importance of work-life balance and pursued hobbies, such as painting, which she now uses to relax.
“Everything had become so dark and dull, so it’s wonderful to work with colour,” she said. “The painting has given me a lot of joy.”
beyondblue: 1300 224 636
Employers support resource: headsup.org.au/beyondblue-resources
This piece by Chloe Booker was originally published on ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ April 28, 2017.