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ABC News
ABC News
Victorian political reporter Richard Willingham

Fears about WorkCover changes for bullying, harassment claims as Victorian government considers overhaul

WorkCover recipients like Kim Jones may not be eligible for support under proposed changes. (ABC News: Matthew Holmes)

Kim Jones loved her job at a private mental health clinic.

But it was at that job that she says she suffered a crippling mental health injury due to bullying and harassment.

"It changed my life. I'm unable to do normal day-to-day things such as cooking. I'm not allowed to cook on my own because I forget to turn the gas off," Ms Jones said.

"I will never work again."

Ms Jones's speech sometimes slows, and she can only drive in her neighbourhood due to memory loss.

She has had to rely on her family and friends, her support dog Tilly, as well as a team of psychologists to survive.

She also receives financial assistance from WorkCover for her treatment, which she said has been a lifesaver.

"I would have been dead. Because I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't get up. It took an army of people to get me to where I am back today. And still that army of people are with me,'' she said.

But under a plan flagged by the Victorian government, people like Ms Jones may no longer be able to access WorkCover for workplace bullying as part of a radical overhaul of the state's WorkCover scheme.

Last month the government said WorkCover was "fundamentally broken" and unsustainable due to the ballooning costs of payouts, in particular mental health injuries.

Under options discussed by government for a reformed WorkCover, mental health payments may be restricted to post-traumatic stress disorder, with bullying and harassment excluded.

Ms Jones, and the mental health sector, are pleading with the Andrews government to keep mental health injuries, especially bullying and harassment, in the scheme.

"People need help, people need assistance. People need to be able to live their life happy,'' Ms Jones said.

Risk of giving 'green light' to workplace bullying

Experts warn without bullying in the scheme, bullies would act with impunity.

Katrina Norris, director of Australian Association of Psychologists, said it would take away the employer's responsibility to provide a safe workplace for employees.

"[It] gives perpetrators of bullying and harassment a green light to continue their behaviour and removes the right of victims to support and compensation when they have not been protected in the workplace,'' Dr Norris said.

"This is a very slippery slope and is purely unacceptable."

Katrina Norris says removing avenues to support victims could lead to more negative workplace behaviour. (Supplied: Australian Association of Psychologists)

Psychological injury claims are more expensive and tend to last longer than physical injuries.

Dr Norris said claims for workplace bullying and harassment account for 39 per cent of all psychological claims across Australia.

"Taking aim at psychological injury for being the higher cost, longer duration problem child of workers' compensation claims, simply ignores the fundamental flaws and limitations to the state's workers' compensation scheme and undermines the very real and lived experiences of those who have been psychologically injured in the line of work,'' she said.

The government has signalled that better intervention to prevent bullying is part of the solution, and experts in the sector agree.

Mental Health Victoria chief executive Marcelle Mogg said the government could incentivise employers with reduced premiums for good performance.

There are also fears in the sector that if WorkCover is not accessible for mental injuries people wont seek help until it is too late, putting greater strain on Victoria's already beleaguered health and mental health system.

"It's the case that if people are not able to access the care and support that they need under one system, they will present most likely to another system for care," Ms Mogg said.

"That, of course, will most likely be the broader health system. Or indeed the mental health system."

Marcelle Mogg says Victoria's health system could be put under more strain if support is made less accessible.   (ABC News: Richard Willingham)

Political pushback on proposed mental health cutbacks

The Andrews government held a royal commission into the mental health system and has poured billions of dollars into reforming the sector.

There's a political risk the government will be labelled hypocritical for taking a constructive approach to mental health treatment in recent years, while narrowing mental health help for workers.

Shadow Minister for Mental Health Emma Kealy said Victorians had every right to be disappointed that the Labor government was taking steps to make it even harder to access mental health support.

"The royal commission into Victoria's mental health system should have been the start of improving access to support and building our workforce, and yet it has never been harder to see a mental health professional with thousands of vacancies across the state,'' Ms Kealy said.

Mental health payments may be restricted to post-traumatic stress disorder under options to reform WorkCover discussed by the government. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Unions, including the Community and Public Sector Union, have also raised concerns about the diminution of workers' rights and protections.

Trades Hall Secretary Luke Hilakari said the Labor government had proudly led on mental health reform and on harassment and violence in the workplace.

"The Andrews government must continue to support these people with mental health issues so they can continue to be well functioning and contribute to Victoria,'' Mr Hilakari said.

Psychologist Joe Gagliano, who sees many clients with WorkCover claims, said it would be a disaster if the criteria were narrowed.

"There's a lot of talk about mental health and government saying mental health is crucial," Mr Gagliano said.

"And here we have a government which is trying to actually limit the support for mental health for people who are injured at work."

Joe Gagliano says the proposed changes could be disastrous for his patients. (ABC News: Richard Willingham)

Minister for WorkCover Danny Pearson said the government was still conducting consultation on how to fix WorkCover.

"We've been up-front that the WorkCover scheme is broken, and that's why we are talking to worker and business stakeholder groups to arrive at the best way to fix it," he said in a statement.

"We're looking at all options and listening to the feedback — our ultimate priority is to get people back to work after an injury."

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