National

Mental health still a problem in public service, but improving

Australian Public Service bosses still do not know why their employees have more mental health problems than private sector workers, but they hope it is getting better.

Workers' compensation claims by public servants for mental stress declined in 2013-14 after years of spiralling out of control, a Senate estimates committee has been told, but the reasons behind the improvement remain a mystery.

The news came as the government's largest department revealed its public servants were taking more than three weeks in unscheduled absence, mostly sickies, each year.

Bureaucrats at the Department of Human Services, which runs Centrelink and Medicare, are now taking nearly twice as many sickies on average as workers in private enterprises who fail to show up to their jobs on 8.3 days a year, according to the latest available research.

But federal workplace insurer Comcare told Senate estimates on Thursday that mental health claims from federal government workplaces were down in 2013-14, but public servants were still lodging psychological claims at nearly five times the rate of private sector workers.

Bureaucrats working for the Australian Capital Territory government were lodging claims at a staggering nine times the rate of private companies' employees, with ACT public servants recording 3.6 mental health claims per 1000 workers in 2013-14.

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Comcare deputy chief executive Cathy Skippington told the senators on the committee that she did not know what was behind the decrease in mental health claims but she hoped it was cause for optimism.

"There's plenty of reasons, but none that we've been able to identify clearly," Ms Skippington said.

"But the number of psychological injury claims that Comcare received last year is 80 less than the the year before.

"Now that does not yet make a trend but we're hoping and still investing in our work, with the Australian Public Service and the ACT about reducing that ongoing rate of psychological harm through claims."

The Comcare boss told the committee that the big private enterprises insured under licence by her agency had more workplace flexibility to manage problems before they got to the point of a compensation claim.

"I'm sure that it's about the different businesses the licences are in, as opposed to the public service, the flexibility they have in addressing some of the claims, or some of the pre-events, before it becomes a claim," Ms Skippington said.

But Comcare was also seeing an increase in mental health claims from the private sector amid a growing understanding among Australians of workplace mental health issues, Ms Skippington said.

"It's also about an awareness of mental health issues, that there's an environment now in which it can be spoken about and it can be addressed," she told the committee.

"It doesn't explain the differential but it does also explain that the licensees are starting to see more claims coming through."

Public sector mental health claims to Comcare:

2012-13: 872

2013-14: 795

Private sector: 0.4 per thousand workers

Commonwealth government: 1.9 per thousand workers

ACT government: 3.6 per thousand workers

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