Centrelink customer aggression 'caused my nervous breakdown'

Centrelink customer aggression 'caused my nervous breakdown'

A former Centrelink public servant who says her nervous breakdown was caused by the aggression of customers left waiting by the welfare agency for up to 70 minutes at a time has won her battle for workers' compensation.

Former customer service officer Vanessa Konstandopoulos said she spent her working days in "fight or flight mode" as she tried to process welfare claimants' interviews at a central Sydney Centrelink office in late 2011.

She also said that bullying and harassment by one of her managers, as well as the stress of trying to see up to 80 customers a day, led to her breakdown.

The compensation win comes despite managers from the Department of Human Services, which runs Centrelink, denying there was customer aggression problem or even long waiting times and the compensation authority trying to link Ms Konstandopoulos's psychiatric problems to failed promotion applications.

In her claim for workers' compensation for "adjustment disorder with features of anxiety and depressed mood", the former bureaucrat said it was not uncommon for one customer to be at her desk and another waiting on a computer screen or the phone.

When a "very arrogant" client at Centrelink's Leichardt office shouted at her that she was "just a public servant" it hit Konstandopoulos hard and she was left feeling immediately drained.


Soon after the 23-year veteran public servant, whose job was terminated on medical grounds in 2013, had a panic attack at a shopping centre and was later diagnosed as suffering anxiety disorder.

Federal workplace insurer Comcare rejected Ms Konstandopoulos's initial claim for compensation saying her psychiatric issues were the result of being refused a promotion, a pay rise and six weeks leave.

If Comcare and the department could prove that these rejections were reasonable and they had caused the employees' problems, they would not be liable to pay compensation.

In a three-day hearing before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in Sydney in August, Comcare's barrister Rhonda Anderson tried to paint Ms Konstandopoulos as an unreliable witness who exaggerated or deliberately misrepresented events.

A Centrelink manager also gave evidence that customers at Leichardt never had to wait for 70 minutes, that she had no recall of any incidents of aggression towards Ms Konstandopoulos, and that customer conflict was "infrequent" at the inner-west office.

But tribunal members Anne Britton and Ronald McCallum found the weight of the medical evidence was with the former customer service officer and they could not accept the "conjecture" of Comcare's position.

"It is possible that the promotion decision was a significant contributing factor and/or an operative cause of Ms Konstandopoulos's condition," the tribunal members wrote in their decision.

"However, the necessary causal connection between the decision and Ms Konstandopoulos's condition must be established on the basis of probabilities, not possibilities or conjecture.

"We are not satisfied on the balance of probabilities that Ms Konstandopoulos's adjustment disorder was suffered as a result of any of the disputed decisions and for that reason, we set aside the decision to refuse her claim for compensation."

Noel Towell

Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age

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