Parliamentary Committee on Occupational Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation: Inquiry into Work Related Mental Disorders and Suicide Prevention

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS ( 16:06 ): I move: 

That the 26th report of the committee on its Inquiry into Work Related Mental Disorders and Suicide Prevention be noted. 

As all members of this chamber would know, suicide prevention is a passion of mine and a portfolio responsibility that I hold. I must say that I have had great support within my party over a large number of years in regard to that. In particular, the other members of my party who have had mental health responsibilities, including previously the Hon. Mr Lucas and more recently the Hon. Mr Wade, have been of great support to me in that work. There are many others in the parliament, across all political lines, who have been supportive of that work, none more so than the Hon. Steph Key, who, of course, is the chair of the Occupational Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Committee. 

In the early days of my time on the committee, when members of the committee were discussing the potential inquiries that we would pursue during this electoral period, a four-year cycle, the Hon. Ms Key was very strong in her suggestion that we make an inquiry into work related mental disorders and suicide prevention. I thank her for that, and the committee for the way in which the inquiry has been conducted. 

The committee's in-depth inquiry into these matters is important, because the prevention of psychological injuries arising from work activities falls within the scope of the Work Health and Safety Act. A person conducting a business or undertaking (otherwise known as a PCBU) has a primary duty of care, insofar as it is reasonably practicable, to ensure that workers are not exposed to health and safety risks, and this, of course, includes psychological risks.

Work provides a feeling of self-worth and identity. It provides opportunities to develop skills, to form social relationships and to plan for the future. Work is good for mental health and wellbeing. Depression and anxiety are the most common work-related mental disorders and they are easily treatable. It is estimated that 80 per cent of unproductive time and absenteeism is due to depression, which is a significant cost to employers and the economy and costs over $17 billion annually.

Alarmingly, the World Health Organisation warns that by 2030 depression is likely to be the number one cause of disability in developed countries. The inquiry considered legal and policy issues and examined data and the impact of mental disorders and suicide on workers, businesses and others. Prevention initiatives, including training, information and availability of support, were of considerable interest to the committee because prolonged mental stress can contribute to serious physical and mental disorders. 

Mental disorders account for about 4 per cent of all accepted work-related injuries, but are responsible for five times more in cost and absence from work. Workers in their mid-career, being between the ages of 40 and 59, account for 46 per cent of all mental disorder claims, the most common causes of which are work pressure, harassment and bullying, occupational violence and exposure to traumatic incidents. Females report more than half of all mental disorder claims, while males are more likely to report post-traumatic stress. 

In the private sector, a higher number of community service workers, personal carers and truck drivers report mental disorders. There is a high level of stress reported by teachers, nurses and police officers in the public sector due to inherent risks of human service work. 

The committee recommends that there is a need to explore ways to reduce psychological harm in the public sector. Police, emergency services and other first responders are at high risk of suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The committee recommends that the Minister for Industrial Relations investigate the call for presumptive provisions for this group. 

The Ambulance Service is justly proud of its peer support program, which has been in operation for more than 20 years. The program provides staff with wellness and assistance services, which help protect them from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) risk factors. The program helps to keep mental disorders low, even though paramedics respond to traumatic events and deal with traumatised people on a daily basis. 

Over the last decade, significant improvements have been made in the frequency of work-related physical injuries and fatalities by analysing data, undertaking research, improving the design of equipment and facilities, and monitoring performance. It is possible to reduce the frequency of mental disorders by taking the same approach in relation to psychological hazards. 

For those who suffer a significant work-related mental disorder, a medical impairment evaluation can be undertaken by psychiatrists approved under the Return to Work Act. The Guide to Evaluation of Psychiatric Impairment for Clinicians, otherwise known as the GEPIC, is the mandated evaluation tool for this purpose. Several witnesses raised concerns about the subjective nature of the GEPIC, which they said is not a reliable and valid measure of psychiatric impairment. Few workers with a psychiatric injury are likely to be assessed at 30 per cent or above. Those with lower levels of psychiatric impairment are likely to have difficulty functioning, managing self-care and working. For this reason, the committee recommends that the GEPIC be independently reviewed. 

Suicide is the leading cause of death in men and women of working age. There was a 17.5 per cent increase in the number of suicides in 2014 compared to the previous year. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that twice as many people die nationally from suicide than are fatally injured on our roads. There has been little research into the connection between work and suicide; however, the committee heard some devastating stories and shocking statistics about suicides in certain industries. 

Men in the construction industry are more likely to die from suicide than from a work-related injury, the cost of which is estimated to be in excess of $57 million to the South Australian economy. Police and emergency services are also high-risk industries for suicide. Statistics show that there is a higher frequency of self-harm by females, which may indicate that many male occupations provide the means to complete suicide attempts. 

The committee recommends that the Minister for Police commission research into suicidal behaviour of police officers and identify a mitigation strategy. A number of police psychological health programs should be evaluated for effectiveness. It did shock members of the committee to hear that the South Australian public sector had experienced five suicides in the last five years as a result of work pressure. 

The committee acknowledges the great work of the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist in leading the suicide prevention strategy in the state, but notes that the resources provided to that office are limited. Our recommendations reflect the need for adequate resources to enable the Chief Psychiatrist to effectively consult, promote and develop suicide prevention strategies that meet the needs of all sectors of the community. 

I note that it is only in recent weeks that the date lines for the next strategy have been extended. It just sneaked through the back door, really. The current strategy is a 2012-2016 strategy and we all expected that the next strategy would be released some time this year for 2017‑2020. There is nothing clearer to me than that the strategy will not be ready for the start of 2017, so just recently government sources have added a 1 to it, so it is now 2017-2021. 

Some people would say, perhaps I should not nitpick, but the reality is I have been pushing throughout this year, and in fact, from late last year, for the development of the next strategy. This is no criticism of the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist, in fact, we had an expert witness that admitted to the committee that the office— 

Members interjecting: 

The PRESIDENT: I do not want to interrupt your discussion, but the honourable member has a very important speech he is giving so let's pay him the respect— 

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS: Thank you for your protection, sir. The expert witness gave us his thoughts that the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist does fantastic work, but the principal role of that office should not be the development of a strategy, it should be more in a clinical field. The government has placed the responsibility for suicide prevention strategy on the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist, who do fabulous work, with very limited numbers of people and limited resources; they do a terrific job. The government needs to take that into account and I look forward to seeing that strategy (2017-2021) when it comes out. The committee's recommendations reflect the need to develop and implement strategies to help workplaces become mentally healthy and to encourage and support workers to improve resilience and seek help when times are tough. 

In conclusion, I would like to add that one of the things we have experienced in the rather lengthy time we have taken to do this report—and I make no apologies for the length of time we have taken, and I do not think any other member of the committee would because it is a serious topic—and the feedback we have received while we have been doing the report, from both within the public sector and from unions or workers associations associated with those areas, is that some of the cogs that were moving very slowly have started to move a little bit faster as a result of our inquiry. 

I think that often happens with parliamentary committees. It is not necessarily what happens after the report comes out, as much as we always want those recommendations to be taken into account, but sometimes during the course of an inquiry some of those things start to change, and I am pleased to hear that that has happened. I would also like to give additional credence to organisations such as MATES in Construction, which have been leading the way in dealing with attitudes about mental health and suicide in the construction industry and also the mining industry. 

The development of community suicide prevention networks around South Australia is a terrific initiative that I have supported greatly. I would urge all members, but particularly members of the government, to attend some of those from time to time because those people would get a great boost from having a member of the government turn up, but also the quality of the people and the broad spectrum of the community from which they come is something that I think is commendable, and it is a great credit to the work that the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist has done in that area. 

I have also raised in the committee hearings that I think there is a case for some of these networks to be developed within various areas of the public and private sectors, not so much in a geographical area but in a work-related area. I think some of those could follow the MATES in Construction model or they could be done in other matters, but personally I urge that that be considered. I would like to take the opportunity to thank all those who have contributed to this important inquiry by making submissions and giving evidence. All the individuals and not-for-profit organisations who work with limited resources to make a difference in the lives of those struggling with mental health issues are to be commended. 

I extend my sincere thanks to the member for Ashford in another place who, as I said, is an excellent chair of the committee, but also one who thinks outside of the square in relation to what the committee can inquire into and achieve, as I have just noted. I also thank my other colleagues in this place, the Hon. Mr Darley and the Hon. Gerry Kandelaars, and the member for Schubert and the member for Fisher in the House of Assembly. Once again, I indicate my thanks to the committee's only existing staff member, Ms Sue Sedivy. As recently as this week, the name of her new additional staffer in that team has been announced. With those remarks, I commend the report to the council. 

The Hon. J.A. DARLEY ( 16:23 ): First of all, I would like to thank the Hon. John Dawkins for his excellent summary of the Occupational Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Committee's report on its Inquiry into Work Related Mental Disorders and Suicide Prevention. I reiterate what my colleague said with regard to work-related mental illness. There is now a greater awareness of these matters and the committee identified trends that indicated certain sectors were more susceptible to mental illness than others. Support should certainly be given to those sectors especially in the form of education so that early intervention can be utilised. This is especially the case for those in public sector jobs that are likely to suffer psychological harm. 

Whilst some sectors have already recognised the importance of this matter, there is still work that needs to be done, and I would encourage the government and all agencies to explore this further. It is clear that this is an issue that requires further investigation. We are losing too many people to suicide, especially when these are matters that may be able to be prevented and addressed if people knew they could get support from their workplace. I thank everyone who took the time to give evidence to the committee, other committee members and the committee's executive officer, Ms Sue Sedivy, for their contributions to this inquiry. 

Motion carried.