Clash of personalities - what is and is not work related

12 July 2021

The Supreme Court considered a s81A decision from the Workers Rehabilitation and Compensation Tribunal that there was no reasonably arguable case as to a personality conflict and events arising in and out of work and whether those interactions between staff was causally related to employment for a psychological injury claim.

In issue

  • Whether the Worker’s employment was a ‘substantial contributing factor’ to the psychological injury, and whether other personal interactions fell within the scope of the Worker’s employment.

The background

The Worker was employed by the employer as a supervisor in the finance section of the Department of Health. She initially had an altercation with a co-worker followed by various other confrontations with the co-worker on lunch breaks, filming the co-worker, following her around the office. The co-worker applied for a restraint order against the Worker, the supervisor. The Worker then went to the doctor, she was diagnosed with ‘adjustment disorder with a depressed and anxious mood’ and ceased work.

The decision at the Workers Rehabilitation and Compensation Tribunal

The Worker referred to two incidents, the first one being when the Worker was ‘verbally abused’ by the co-worker (on 13 August 2020) and took a week off work and the second being the date when the Worker left work, being certified as unfit for work in the initial workers compensation medical certificate (on 6 October) following further investigations internally and the court appearance for the restraint order. The employer claimed that it was the action of the co-worker applying for a restraining order that caused the adjustment disorder. The test for whether a reasonably arguable case exists comes from St Helens Oysters Pty Ltd v Coastworth [2007] TASSC 90. It was found that the employer’s evidence did not support an argument to dispute the claim on the basis that the Worker’s employment was not the major or most significant contributing to the Worker’s injury. The Worker was entitled to workers compensation benefits in accordance with the Act.

The issues on appeal

This case deals with an appeal by the employer following the decision of the Tribunal that there was no reasonably arguable case, claiming the Tribunal erred in law in suggesting that the only conclusion open to it was that the employer did have a reasonably arguable case, made a number of specific errors of law and the Tribunal failed to provide adequate reasons. The employer disputed liability on the basis that there was no relationship between any incapacity on the part of the Worker and her employment duties.

The decision on appeal

The Supreme Court considered the evidence before the Tribunal as to whether there was a reasonably arguable case. The test being the injury which is a disease needed employment as the major or most significant contributing factor to the development of that disease. The employer argued that the version of events from the co-worker could be reasonably accepted as correct and that those actions complained of by the co-worker occurred outside of work including on lunch breaks, and the conduct had nothing to do with the Worker’s employment duties.

The employer claimed it had a reasonably arguable case on the grounds that the employer’s version of events differed with the Worker’s and that it was not the employment that contributed to her adjustment disorder as the most significant factor. However the Court discussed that the word ‘employment’ in s25(1)(b) referred not only to the worker’s duties but also “beyond mere duties of employment to matters naturally incidental to the contract of employment” and "all that which was reasonably incidental thereto including interaction with fellow employees". Therefore even if the employer was claiming it was interactions on the Worker’s lunch break with the co-worker and the restraint order which was separate to work, all aspects of that interaction were aspects of the employment. Therefore, the Tribunal had not erred in law.

The Court said that even though there were actions outside of the workplace and matters regarding the restraint order application and associated events, did not mean that those things did not meet the above test as to what is causally related to employment and were indeed aspects of the worker’s employment. It was the interactions between the Worker and the co-worker that caused the injury and the resultant incapacity for work. The stress that can arise out of a relationship, that being an employment relationship, is a finding that the employment is a contributing factor. Therefore, the employer had not provided sufficient evidence to show that there was a reasonably arguable case that the Worker’s employment was not the most major or significant factor contributing to worker’s injury in reference to s81A, and the Court dismissed the employer’s appeal.

Implications for you

Tricky situations as can be seen in this case require a clear consideration of what is work related and what is not. Personality clashes can be difficult, there needs to be a clear delineation between what is related to employment and what is completely separate to employment. It is important to look at all interactions and activities that are incidental to the employment and whether those interactions have led to the worker’s psychological injury. Just because some work interaction did not occur in the course of employment, doesn’t still make it related to employment. Careful consideration must be had of the factual evidence available and whether that supports an argument under s81A.

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