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New study tackles workplace stress

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Stressed workers take more leave and cost employers millions in compensation claims but the first step towards a solution could be as simple as asking employees what worries them, a study has found.

The findings of a new Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA) study, to be presented by Elizabeth Pratt at The Australian Exhibitions & Conferences Pty Ltd Safety Conference in Sydney during October, showed dramatic improvements in absenteeism in just months.

Stress-related injuries make up a growing proportion of the 30,000 or so workers compensation claims filed in Victoria each year, amounting to almost $134 million.

"Stress-related claims are traditionally more complex to manage for VWA, their agents and service providers, and cost employers more. Roughly double the amount of compensation is paid to workers suffering from stress than those with physical injuries," Ms Pratt said.

Workers in the public sector account for one in five workers compensation claims, compared to 7 per cent of claims in the private sector.

In response, WorkCover, together with the Department of Education and Training (DET), Department of Human Services (DHS) and unions, piloted an innovative program aimed at addressing stress.

At the beginning of the study, over 30 per cent of workers in both DET and DHS reported they felt stressed at work – three times the Australian average.

Health and safety representatives, employees and their supervisors met to identify stressful work conditions and make action plans to address them, which were then implemented with the support of management. The result was a decrease in the psychological distress levels, matched with impressive productivity gains. Workers whose stress levels fell were at least 30 per cent less likely to be absent from work. Ms Pratt said the study offered clear lessons for employers.

"Consultation followed by action was key," she said. "While talking about stress gave the issue greater prominence, merely talking about it did not reduce its occurrence - only the structured implementation of agreed actions brought about this outcome."

"The study exemplifies what VWA and its stakeholders must do to tackle workplace stress properly: find out the root causes so that employers and workers have the best opportunity to intervene and control things themselves."

Ms Pratt will detail the research findings at The Safety Conference during her address on October 17. The Safety Conference and The Safety Show will run from Tuesday 17 to Thursday 19 October at Southee Complex and The Dome respectively at the Sydney Showground, Sydney Olympic Park.

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