13 November 2023

Comcare boss stresses Government's focus on psychological safety in the APS

| Chris Johnson
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Comcare CEO Greg Vines says psychological safety has become a priority in the public service. Photo: X (formerly Twitter).

Psychological safety at work has become a high priority for the Australian Public Service, and a key area of concern for the Government’s workplace health and safety regulator and insurer, Comcare.

At a recent address to the Public Service Commissioners’ conference, Comcare’s new chief executive officer Greg Vines outlined what he described as the multifaceted relationship between psychosocial safety and integrity in the public sector.

Nationally, he said, the public service was seeing a pattern of increased numbers of claims for psychological injury, involving more time off work and higher costs than physical injury claims.

More than one-third (36 per cent) of all claims Comcare receives from Australian Government workers are for psychological injury.

And the median incapacity, or lost time, for these claims has been at more than 31 weeks for the past two fiscal years.

Bullying and harassment is the number-one cause of psychological injury in the Commonwealth jurisdiction, accounting for 38 per cent of all accepted claims related to mental stress over the past two financial years.

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Work demands or pressure is the second-highest cause of such injuries, accounting for more than a quarter of psychological claims.

Psychological claims also continue to have poor outcomes in terms of getting people back to work, with the return-to-work rate for these claims being 53 per cent in 2022-23, compared with 88 per cent for physical injury and disease claims.

“At its core, psychosocial safety is the assurance that people can do their work without fear of psychological harm,” Mr Vines said.

“It’s about ensuring that workers feel secure, valued and respected. This isn’t just about personal wellbeing – it’s about the overall health of our organisations.

“At a minimum, it’s a workplace that promotes workers’ mental health and wellbeing, protects mental health by effectively managing work-related risks and hazards, and focuses on preventing mental illness and injury from occurring in the first place.

“For me, psychological safety in workplaces is also about creating an environment where staff can speak up, share ideas, ask questions and make mistakes without fear of humiliation or retribution.”

The Comcare boss said workers should feel comfortable taking risks and being their authentic selves at work, and be able to do that without worrying about negative consequences such as being judged, bullied or excluded.

The key factors in the Government’s focus are whistleblower protection, an ethical workplace climate, reduced corruption, increased trust, employee wellbeing, open communication, moral courage, employee engagement, and organisational reputation.

“And I think civility is an important part of a psychologically safe workplace,” Mr Vines said.

“Everyone should display behaviours of common courtesy and decency that ensure a respectful and courteous work environment.

“Civility and dignity in the workplace can make a big difference to enhancing workplace culture.

“Psychosocial safety is a cornerstone for fostering integrity. A safe environment allows employees to voice concerns and act ethically without fear of retaliation.”

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The Comcare CEO’s speech was referenced by APS Commissioner Gordon de Brouwer at the agency’s workplace safety awards last week, where awards were presented to government agencies for (among other things) initiatives aimed at preventing psychological harm at work.

Dr de Brouwer said for the APS to be a model employer, attention to psychological safety was an important priority.

He said APS secretaries were focused on safety in the workplace and were giving much attention to ”psychosocial safety’’ in the Secretaries Board’s ”future of work” subcommittee.

“There’s also been some fantastic work, I think, between Comcare, the Public Service Commission in the mental health and suicide prevention unit, and working with others in investing in psychological capability,” he said.

“That’s a really important bit of work … the broad range of health of people really matters in our workplace …

“We really recognise that a committed, engaged and safe workplace is important in its own right.

“But it also helps increase productivity, it lowers the amount of time that people are away due to injuries and incidents, it increases reporting and helps lower the premiums that agencies pay.

“That all means there’s good economic and financial [reasons], but fundamentally there are very good human reasons for doing this.”

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