COVID-19 and the recent rise in psychological injuries

Risk management for employers is equally as important to address the known, visible risks now, as it is to address the latent, foreseeable risks in the future. Hundreds of employees across the nation have already lodged workers compensation claims related to COVID-19, and this is expected to grow as employees return to work.

Each regulator has published information about the management of COVID-19 cases, effectively making the process of submitting a claim easier for employees. Insurers and claims agents are then tasked with reviewing each claim for work-relatedness, which, for our frontline employees, will be a straightforward process of determining possible exposure during the course of employment.

Most regulators will impose controls over the ongoing management of these claims, and will be aimed at expediting claims management decisions, reducing barriers and supporting employees through their recovery and return to work.

It is important to note whilst claims received to date note COVID-19 as the primary disease for compensation, regulators have reported up to 67% of these claims also include psychological components of isolation and fear.

The average cost and duration of a psychological injury claim is typically three times that of a physical injury claim, therefore placing employers in a situation of potential exponential risk of both increased volume and severity of claims, and increased insurance costs in the long term.

Whilst some regulators may offer businesses adversely impacted by COVID-19 some temporary premium relief, liabilities still have the chance to accumulate and will eventually need to be funded.

In addition to the impact on new claims received, there are factors adversely impacting existing claims, including:

  • Increased entitlement amounts and durations. In Victoria, for example, claims approaching 130 weeks can now apply for an extension of benefits for a further six months to support redeployment efforts.
  • Revised expectations for the submission of medical certificates, which may reduce governance.
  • Delay in interventions on existing claims, such as waitlists for surgery and independent medical examinations.
  • A business’ HR function is key to all of this, indeed it is not an exaggeration to say effective HR will determine whether a business survives beyond 2020.
Perhaps the most powerful tool available to combat these factors is the effective early intervention for all injuries and illnesses. An effective way to do this is for HR to use a telehealth platform. A telehealth platform helps report, assess, and identify employee health issues, both physical and psychological, before they become an endemic problem within a business. Better still, these types of platforms can be used remotely and in-location by HR managers to appropriately track and document employee issues and deploy solutions quickly.

Separate to workers compensation impacts, employers must take every reasonable step to implement systems and processes to protect employees from risks to both their physical and mental health, including efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 as work returns to some semblance of normal. The expectation of employers protecting their employees from infection is strongly enforced by regulators, with State Work Safe bodies warning business leaders must manage risks, or face severe penalties.

To help employers mitigate risk in their workplaces:

  • Employers need to have an effective means to understand health across the workforce.
  • Employers must implement effective systems and processes of work to reduce the risk of injury or ill health to their team members, and at home.
  • Employers must have programs in place to provide immediate support to any employee who is injured or ill during the course of their employment.
  • Employers should consider expanding support services to contractors and family members as a holistic management approach to psychosocial wellbeing at work.
  • Employers must have notification of incidents, injuries, hazards and changes in circumstances.
  • Employers must have regular consultation and review of work health and safety processes.
  • Employers must have details on unplanned absenteeism, timesheets, planned leave, and other entitlements and arrangements.

While it is exciting to get back to some sense of normality after COVID-19, the risks for employers, both now and in the future, are arguably increased at this uncertain time and dedicated planning, tracking and mitigation using an HR tool is more crucial than ever.

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