Post traumatic stress disorder at work leads to $180k compensation
An employer has been ordered to pay $180,000.00 in damages to a worker who developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during her employment as a journalist.
The journalist, known as ‘YZ’, was a crime reporter from 2003 to 2009 and a Supreme Court reporter from 2010 to 2013 for The Age Company Limited (The Age). During the course of her employment, she was exposed to traumatic and stress-inducing events such as homicides, suicides, fatal car accidents, natural disasters and the deaths of young children, which she asserted was the cause of her PTSD.
YZ argued that The Age breached her employment contract and their duty of care by failing to provide a safe system of work. She alleged that no steps were taken to monitor her wellbeing after she had covered traumatic events.
The Age contended that they did not breach their duty of care to YZ and that any breach (if there was one) did not cause YZ’s PTSD. They pointed to other causative factors, such as relationship breakdowns, and also claimed that there was no evidence to establish that a formal peer support system would have prevented the psychological injury.
After several years as a crime reporter, YZ eventually complained that she could no longer handle the constant exposure to “death and destruction”. In response to this complaint, she was moved to sports reporting for approximately 12 months.
However, she was then asked on three occasions by her superior to move to Supreme Court reporting. YZ resisted the first two requests, making clear that she did not want to move from Sports reporting, but on the third occasion she accepted the role.
The Victorian County Court found that The Age breached its duty to guard against the risk of foreseeable injury. The stories YZ was covering were graphic and traumatic and a proper psychological examination would have revealed the likelihood of a significant psychological injury.
The Court also observed that the culture at The Age was such that reporting of psychological symptoms and distress was not encouraged.
Judge O’Neill found that The Age should have:
- provided training and instructions to all new journalists and senior staff on how to identify and respond to symptoms of trauma;
- implemented a peer support program through which properly trained volunteers from within the organisation are accessible to support journalists;
- ensured employee assistance programs were readily available so that those exposed to trauma could access them immediately and without delay; and
- listened to YZ when she made it clear that she could no longer handle crime reporting.
Employers must take proactive steps, such as those identified by the Court above, to protect the mental wellbeing of their staff, particularly if workers are required to perform tasks that pose a foreseeable risk of psychological injury. Examples of effective preventative measures may include:
- promoting employee assistance programs and access to personal leave for “mental health” days;
- providing accessible and confidential channels for frank disclosure of mental health issues; and
- training managers to identify and respond appropriately to signs of mental distress.
Contact the Employment, Safety and Migration Team at Macpherson Kelley for assistance understanding and meeting your workplace health and safety obligations.
This article was written by Veronica Clinch, Lawyer – Employment, Safety and Migration.