When “reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way” is not enough

Stress happens. Every teacher knows themselves or has had a colleague who has suffered from it.

How stress happens, however, is important. Section 32(5)(a) of the Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (the act) provides that injury does not include a psychiatric or psychological disorder arising out of, or in the course of “reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way” by the employer in connection with the worker’s employment.

What that means is WorkCover claims can, and often are, rejected on the basis that, yes, you have suffered a stress injury at work and, yes, the injury arose out of or in the course of your employment. Your employment was the major significant contributing factor to the injury, but unfortunately the injury arose out of or in the “course of reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way.”

A recent decision by the review unit illustrates this point.

The teacher lodged an application with WorkCover for a psychological injury sustained as a result of managing the problem behaviour of students in his year four classroom, who exhibited disruptive, antisocial behaviour on a daily basis.

He reported his difficulties to the school, which offered him assistance and support. Despite this, there was little improvement in the behaviour of the students and eventually the teacher required time off work with medical evidence stating he was suffering from “severe anxiety and work related stress”.

WorkCover rejected his application, stating that the teacher had not proved that his injury arose as a result of having to manage uncontrollable and unruly children, in excess of what would be “expected” of him in his role. It considered there was no proof that the teacher had been exposed to any more than “normal, daily workplace stresses”, and found that the injury arose from the decisions of management to put the teacher in charge of that particular group of students, and the management action was reasonable. The teacher disagreed.

The issue to be decided was whether the teacher sustained an "injury" within the meaning of section 32 of the act, which meant determining whether:

  • he sustained a personal injury which arose out of or in the course of his employment 
  • the employment was the major significant contributing factor to the injury 
  • the injury did not arise out of or in the course of reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way by the employer. 

The teacher argued that while managing poor behaviour is within the role of a teacher, the act does not require the stressors to be outside the usual incidents of the role.

The first opportunity that the teacher had to describe the cause of his injury was to his doctor, citing it as “classroom discipline” or rather the lack of it. By the doctor faithfully recording that on the workers’ compensation medical certificate, there was sufficient evidence that his work was the major significant contributing factor to his injury.

All medical evidence indicated that the teacher’s difficulty controlling his class was the cause of his injury. His doctor noted he had a “sustained record in teaching, this class proved too much for him”.

In light of this, the reviewer found that the injury arose in the course of employment and the employment was a substantial contributing factor to the injury.

Conclusion

At no point did the teacher blame the school administration for his difficulties. Because of this, it was wrong for WorkCover to reject the claim by describing it as “normal, daily workplace stress” or attempting to characterise it as arising out of reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way.

The original decision was set aside and a new decision was substituted to accept the application.

This case shows that the distinction between stress caused by work and stress caused by management action taken at work continues to be quite blurred, with WorkCover often applying a catch-all in relation to stress injuries.

However, if the initial complaint focuses on normal workplace stressors and not on any action taken, or not taken, by management, it will often have a better chance of success.

Rachel Drew
TressCox Lawyers


Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 120 No 1, 6 February 2015, p27