A worker developed a psychological injury over a period of time due to nine nominated stressors, one of which amounted to unreasonable management action.
The appellant began an entry-level role with a transport company at age 23. Over the next 18 years, she progressed to a high-ranking position with wide-ranging responsibilities including payroll, superannuation, taxation, trusts and properties. In 2019, the accumulation of workplace stress resulted in the appellant developing an adjustment disorder with depressed and anxious mood. The appellant had expressed she was feeling overwhelmed by her workload, and the lack of support from other employees. The appellant alleged her concerns were not addressed by her employer.
The appellant’s Statement of Facts and Contentions nominated nine workplace stressors as contributing to the injury, which are summarised as follows:
The appellant requested an offsite meeting regarding the affects the stress of her job was having on her health.
January 2019 – June 2019
Advising not keeping up nor coping with workload
During this period, the appellant verbally and by way of physical demeanour communicated on many occasions that she was not keeping up nor coping with her workload. An external accountant conducting a business review advised the company director that her ‘responsibility level was unreasonable along with her workload’
8 July 2019
Uncommunicated changes made by company director
The company director made uncommunicated changes to the system of work and engaged another worker (Ms X) to carry out some of the appellant’s tasks. Ms X issued directives which undermined the appellant’s position within her team.
17 July 2019
Email regarding concerns about Ms X
The appellant emailed the company director regarding her concerns about Ms X.
18 July 2019
Meeting with company director and other executives
The company director yelled at the appellant ‘Are you coming?’ which shocked her. The appellant had thought the purpose of the meeting would be to discuss her email of the previous day but it was not raised.
19 July 2019
Meeting with company director and other executives
The appellant attended a meeting to discuss her email regarding Ms X. The company director verbally agreed that perhaps he did not deal with Ms X’s change in position correctly.
23 July 2019 – 26 July 2019
The appellant felt compelled to attend a work-related dinner in Melbourne with Ms X. The appellant overindulged in alcohol due to feeling stressed and anxious in the situation.
26 July 2019
Ms X’s disclosure
Ms X disclosed to the appellant her knowledge of specific content of the appellant’s email of 17 July 2019. This made the appellant uncomfortable and anxious.
30 July 2019
Breakdown at GP’s office
The appellant attended her GP and upon advising that she was not coping with her current employment situation she had a breakdown. She was provided with a medical certificate from 31 July 2019 to 2 August 2019.
The Commission considered each stressor individually. One of these stressors was ‘the fallout from becoming embarrassingly intoxicated at a work-related event’. The appellant was unable to remember specific details but was later informed an argument took place between herself and a co-worker, with whom she had ongoing tensions.
The appellant lodged an application for compensation with WorkCover Queensland. This claim was rejected, as WorkCover found that the injury resulted from ‘reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way.’ This was significant as it had the effect of excluding the worker’s application pursuant to section 32(5) of the WCRA. The appellant then applied to the Workers’ Compensation Regulator for a review of WorkCover’s decision. The Regulator confirmed WorkCover’s decision, and she subsequently filed an appeal in the QIRC against the Regulator’s decision.
The issues on appeal
The issues to be determined by the Commission were (1) the date of injury (2) whether the appellant’s employment was the major significant contributing factor to the psychological injury and (3) whether the psychological injury arose out of, or in the course of, reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way.
The decision on appeal
The Commission found that (1) the date of injury was 30 July 2019 (2) the psychological injury arose out of, or in the course of the appellant’s employment and her employment was the major significant contributing factor and (3) the psychological injury did not arise out of, or in the course of, reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way.
The date of injury was determined on the basis of the available medical evidence. In particular, the Commission noted the date of the Queensland workers’ compensation medical certificate issued by the appellant’s GP, and the expert evidence, which demonstrated that the injury had been diagnosed on 30 July 2019. The Commission said at  to :
'As observed above, the matters leading up to 30 July 2019 may be considered relevant to the causation of that injury. Put another way, the events said to have occurred after that date are not.'
'As Counsel for the Appellant explained "…the establishment of the injury date signifies a cut-off point, after which evidence of stressors contributing to the injury are no longer relevant".'
The Commission found that, despite several non-work-related stressors (including the passing of the appellant’s father, a ‘cancer scare’, and the fallout from becoming embarrassingly intoxicated at a work-related event in Melbourne), it was the appellant’s work that was the significant contributing factor to the development of her condition. This finding was consistent with the evidence of psychiatrist, Dr John Chalk.
The Commission then considered each of the nominated stressors in turn to determine whether or not they constituted ‘reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way’. The Commission found that of the 9 nominated stressors, only one stressor did not amount to ‘reasonable’ management action, this being the appellant’s workload, work pressure and responsibility over a significant period.
In terms of the meetings held, the Commission found that these were reasonable responses to the appellant’s concerns, including the concerns raised about Ms X in her email of 17 July 2019. In relation to stressor number three, the Commission was not convinced that the events had occurred as described by the appellant and found that the changes had been adequately communicated to the appellant, albeit perhaps a little belatedly. In relation to stressor number 5, the Commission said the evidence did not support a finding that the company director had yelled at the appellant.
In terms of stressor number 7, being the Melbourne trip during which the appellant became ‘embarrassingly intoxicated’, the Commission said that the evidence was that the trip was not compulsory, nor was the dinner and drinks. The Commission therefore did not consider that any of the appellant’s complaints about the Melbourne trip constituted ‘unreasonableness’ on the part of the employer.
In relation to stressor number 8, being Ms X’s disclosure, the Commission held that this amounted to ‘reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way’ because Ms X had not actually said anything to indicate she knew about the email, but rather, the conversation was based on things the appellant had said during the Melbourne trip when she was intoxicated. Regarding stressor number 9, the Commission found this was not in fact a stressor event, but rather, the date of the appellant’s injury. It did not amount to management action taken by the employer.
The Commission went on to reach the following conclusion at  to :
'However, I do consider the imposition of an unattainable level of workload and work intensity on Ms Carr, in the absence of adequate personnel support and resources to the job, to be unreasonable management action. That is what occurred in this case. It is on that basis that Ms Carr's appeal must succeed.'
'For the reasons above, I have found that "reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way" was not a factor causative of Ms Carr's injury – and thus the injury remains one that is compensable under s 32 of the Act.'
The Regulator was ordered to pay the appellant’s costs.
Implications for you
This is an important decision regarding the application of section 32(5) of the WCRA as it demonstrates how the Commission may deal with several stressors, where most constitute ‘reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way’.
This decision also provides useful commentary of every element of psychiatric injury as it relates to section 32 of the WCRA.