/self-ditərməˈnāshən/ – the process whereby a person can control their own life
In order to prevent staff from staying away for an extended period when on stress leave, and ultimately lodging a workers compensation claim, I recommend to organisations that we need to intervene early and contact them within the first 48 hours.
This contact shouldn’t necessarily be made by somebody from their work area, especially not if the person has an issue with a particular member of the team. It can be someone from a different area or someone independent altogether. There just needs to be someone who is checking in with them, asking if everything is okay and if they like to talk about it.
These individuals need someone to listen to their story, not someone who is going to take sides.
They might say they are unhappy with their manager or someone else and, in reality, the manager might not actually be doing anything wrong. That individual may just be really stressed by the situation they are in and misconstrue what is happening in the work environment. Realistically, it doesn’t actually matter – the individual who has the problem needs to be heard and feel validated about their perspective.
Such an approach will give the individual a sense that they are valuable to the organisation, and whether they return to that specific work environment or not, your organisation is still going to benefit from them remaining within the business. If people are excluded from the workplace, their mental health is going to deteriorate.
There are different rules and regulations, depending on what state you are in, about the obligations we have to remain in touch with individuals who are on stress leave. Generally, regardless of the obligations, many managers report feeling uncomfortable about reaching out to that person, in fear they are going to make the situation worse or will not know how to deal with the person’s perspective, the information they may provide, or their mood.
Alternative support options
I often recommend that organisations, especially larger organisations, set up a range of alternatives for contacts that these individuals can speak to in the early stages of stress leave. There may be a team of external counsellors or providers that the individual can access facilitated by the organisation or there might be an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Perhaps your organisation could consider if there is an alternative way of providing an individual access to funding that enables them to access whatever support they might need to help them recover from this stressful situation and return to work.
We all want to support validated therapeutic processes provided by counsellors or psychologists, but for some people, those options may not work for them. They may just need access to de-stressing through natural therapies or massage, acupuncture or attending a mindfulness course.
Certain areas of science might say that these options aren’t ‘valid’, however we shouldn’t be judging what is valid or not for an individual. Rather, we need to allow the injured worker to determine what approach is best for themselves. Self-determination for their own recovery. This approach enables the individual to feel they are being supported by the organisation to get better in whatever way works for them.
Need for Self-Determination
If organisations utilised this approach, I believe that we would find far fewer people would then take the next step and submit a workers’ compensation claim.
In Australia, a lot of the workers’ compensation claims are made because there is no acceptance of differing perspectives. We are insistent that we find somebody at fault and this approach often places a person in a defensive position which can manifest as overt aggression or silent stone-walling. This process exacerbates the injury by forcing the person to defend their experience and due to our history of the concrete thinking applied in our ‘black and white’ legal system, we don’t give the individual any opportunity to have self-determination in what it is that they do to recover.
The concept of self-determination has become better known through our approach to Indigenous affairs in Australia. We support indigenous peoples self-determine what is required to improve outcomes for themselves and their community.
I believe that if we took this approach with our employees, we would find that they would feel more empowered in their own recovery and would return to work quicker. Ideally, we would give them ample opportunity to access the help that they needed without getting to the point of needing to make a workers compensation claim.
Self-Determination does work!
If you’re not sure about the validity of such an approach, just have a look at what Victoria Police implemented about 18 months ago. Pre-COVID, they put in place a fund for individual members to access up to three months worth of support to access therapy, in relation to any area of their life, without needing to seek approval and without it forming part of their personnel record.
We know that when we give people the option to access the support that they need for themselves, and provide them a range of options to support their recovery, they feel more in control of their challenges. This approach empowers them to feel validated by the organisation and, in turn, their recovery.
I can’t stress enough, how important it is to give people the opportunity to have a sense of autonomy over their recovery.