Psychological injury in the workplace

A psychological injury often occurs in the workplace as a result of violence, harassment or bullying.

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Bullying can be made up of:

·        Repeated harmful remarks or personal attacks;

·        Making fun of you as a person or your work (including your family, sex, sexuality, gender identity, race or culture, education or economic background)

·        Sexual harassment and, especially, unwelcomed touching and sexually explicit comments and requests that make you uncomfortable

·        Excluding or preventing you from working with people

·        Excluding or preventing you from taking part in activities that relates to your employment

·        Playing mind games or ganging up on you

·        Intimidation and making you feel undervalued or less important

·        Giving you pointless tasks to do that have nothing to do with your job

·        Giving you impossible jobs that cannot be done in the given time or with the resources provided to you

·        Deliberately changing your work hours or schedule to make it difficult for you

·        Deliberately holding back information you need in order to get your job done properly

·        Pushing, shoving, tripping or grabbing you in the workplace

·        Attacking or threatening you with equipment, knives, guns, clubs or any other type of object that can be turned into a weapon

·        Initiating or hazing, where you are made to do humiliating or inappropriate things in order to be accepted as part of a team.

Bullying can have devastating effects upon your work. You may be affected as follows:

·        Be less active or successful

·        Be less confident in your work

·        Feel scared, stressed, anxious or depressed

·        Have your life outside of work affected, eg study and relationships

·        Want to stay away from work

·        Feel like you cannot trust your employer or the people who you work with

·        Lack confidence and happiness about yourself and your work

·        Have physical signs of stress like headaches, backaches, sleep problems.

Bullying can also affect your health in a profound way and there are numerous psychological conditions that you could develop and which could be quite debilitating. These types of conditions can be compensable either under the workers compensation legislation or under the Civil Liability Act, depending upon the circumstances of your employment.

Compensation recoverable is different in each case. However, in each case, substantial damages could be available to you. Some of the more common types of psychological conditions that develop are as follows:

1.     Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Most people will experience a shock when exposed to bullying and/or harassment at their workplace. This often involves being humiliated or abused by a co-worker or a superior, being unduly demoted, overtly or covertly pursued by someone who is competing for the same position, belonging to “wrong clan”, being sabotaged, being wrongly accused of wrongdoing, damaging or stealing company’s property, obstructing productivity and the like. Such events may cause an individual to develop severe symptoms of trauma.
a.      “Flashbacks”-Recurrent, intrusive memories of the event/s (can’t stop thinking about it) followed by fear, uneasiness, emotional reactions, reliving the accident
b.      Avoidance- avoiding to think about the incidents of abuse, avoiding work, having severe emotional reaction when approaching the place of employment, avoiding talking about work or associating with a colleague, having a startle response when receiving a phone call from the employer etc.
c.      Hypervigilance- feeling “jumpy”, being hyper aroused, easily startled (to any stimuli, related or non-related to the workplace incidents)
d.      Feeling distant from the reality, or being ‘depersonalised’ (feeling as though your mind is not in your body)
e.      Experiencing nightmares (it can be of the incidents, but more often of unspecific content- simply bad dreams)
2.     Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)
Typically occurs within one month of a traumatic event. It lasts at least three days and can persist for up to one month. People with ASD have symptoms similar to those seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

ASD and PTSD differ in two fundamental ways. The first difference is that the diagnosis of ASD can be given only within the first month following a traumatic event. The ASD diagnosis would no longer apply. ASD also differs from PTSD in that it includes a greater emphasis on dissociative symptoms.

a.   feeling numb, detached, or being emotionally unresponsive
b.   reduced awareness of your surroundings, depersonalisation, derealisation, dissociative amnesia, which occurs when you cannot remember one or more important aspects of the traumatic event
c.   having recurring images, thoughts, nightmares, illusions, or flashback episodes of the traumatic event, feeling like you’re reliving the traumatic event, feeling distressed when something reminds you of the traumatic event
d.   Avoiding people, events, thoughts, objects, conversation which remind you of the traumatic event/s
e.   Hypervigilance- feeling “jumpy”, being hyper aroused, easily startled (to any stimuli, related or non-related to the workplace incidents)
f.    Experiencing nightmares (it can be of the incidents, but more often of unspecific content- simply bad dreams)
3.     Depression (Major Depressive Disorder)
Anyone can feel “blue” when exposed to something sad, disappointing, to loss or some kind of emotional hardship. Such mental state is referred to as “reactive depression” and is expected to settle with time. When the symptoms persist it is necessary to introduce treatment. After exposure to workplace abuse people may develop depressive symptoms, dramatic change to the lifestyle or family dynamics, loss of employment, social isolation, inability to continue with pre-injury activities, etc.
a.     anxiety, apathy, general discontent, guilt, hopelessness, loss of interest, loss
b.     of interest or pleasure in activities, mood swings, or sadness
c.     early awakening, excess sleepiness, insomnia, or restless sleep
d.     excessive hunger, fatigue, loss of appetite, or restlessness
e.     agitation, excessive crying, irritability, or social isolation
f.      lack of concentration, slowness in activity, or thoughts of suicide
4.     Anxiety
Anxiety is a driving force behind our thoughts and behaviours and it varies according to the life situations one is exposed to. When it becomes constantly elevated it is considered a psychological disorder and it causes a long list of psychological conditions referred to as “anxiety disorders”. People with high anxiety are commonly diagnosed with more than one anxiety-related condition. Having elevated anxiety daily is normal but having constantly elevated anxiety is a disorder.

fatigue, restlessness, or sweating
hypervigilance or irritability
racing thoughts or unwanted thoughts
insomnia, nausea, palpitations
Constant tension
Anxiety or panic attacks
Abnormal breathing or inability to regulate breathing (feeling of chocking, pressure in the chest, or lacking oxygen)
Feeling lightheaded and unsteady
Being unable to “wind down”)

5.     Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Anxiety and Depression
Basically any combination of symptoms of depression and elevated anxiety. There are different types of this disorder according to the prevalence of the presenting symptoms.
Adjustment disorder with depressed mood

People diagnosed with this type of adjustment disorder tend to experience feelings of sadness and hopelessness. It’s also associated with crying. You may also find that you no longer enjoy activities that you formerly enjoyed.
Adjustment disorder with anxiety

Symptoms associated with adjustment disorder with anxiety include feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and worried. People with this disorder may also have problems with concentration and memory. For children, this diagnosis is usually associated with separation anxiety from parents and loved ones.
Adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood

People with this kind of adjustment disorder experience both depression and anxiety.
Adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct

Symptoms of this type of adjustment disorder mainly involve behavioural issues like driving recklessly or starting fights. Teens with this disorder may steal or vandalize property. They might also start missing school.
Adjustment disorder with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct

Symptoms linked to this type of adjustment disorder include depression, anxiety, and behavioural problems.
Adjustment disorder unspecified

Those diagnosed with adjustment disorder unspecified have symptoms that aren’t associated with the other types of adjustment disorder. These often include physical symptoms or problems with friends, family, work, or school.
6.     Insomnia
Irregular sleep or disturbed sleep pattern, meaning that an individual has difficulties commencing sleep, maintaining sleep or both. Having normal sleep pattern means having no difficulties falling asleep at night and sleeping in continuation until morning.

Following exposure to workplace abuse, a person may develop insomnia due to anxiety, trauma, depression, or simply stress related to dealing with the HR, management, insurance company, police, courts, etc. Insomnia is often a symptom of one of the disorders listed above but it can be diagnosed as a separate, stand-alone condition.
7.     Substance abuse
Abusing legal or illicit substances or developing addiction to one or more of them.

People who became victims of bullying, harassment or abuse at their workplace may resort to various substances in order to deal with physical and emotional pain. This is a form of “self medication” and is considered a psychological disorder which requires appropriate treatment.
8.     Aggravation to existing psychological problems or accident as a trigger for an onset of mental disorder
Exposure to abuse at workplace may cause aggravation of the pre-existing mental health condition which prior was stable or under control. People also may have a genetic predisposition to a certain mental disorder which would never surface unless they were exposed to the abuse.
The above disorders are typically found in people who were exposed to some form of abuse, bullying and harassment at their workplace. There is a number of other psychological illnesses that an individual may develop due to such exposure, requiring expert diagnosis and treatment by a qualified mental health professional.

If you have a claim under the Workers Compensation Act then you must prove that your psychological condition has been diagnosed and it is assessed not less than 15% whole person impairment under the 5th Edition Guide to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment.

In circumstances where such an impairment has been certified or agreed upon with the insurer, you will be entitled to make a claim for damages for all past and future economic losses. Other benefits are available under the Workers Compensation Act itself.

If there is a claim available to you under the Civil Liability Act, then damages would be more substantial. Currently, damages for pain and suffering under the Civil Liability Act exceed $600,000. In addition to this, you would be entitled to damages for past and future medical expenses, past and future economic loss and past and future domestic assistance or personal assistance if you are unable to perform your activities of daily living.

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