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The importance of investigating psychological injuries from a safety perspective

Most, if not all, organisations have an incident management framework. This typically outlines how to respond in the event of an incident, the process for reporting and recording incidents and injuries, and the follow up investigation and corrective actions procedures.

While experience shows that the incident management framework is often well-integrated and utilised for the reporting and investigation of physical injuries, what we are seeing is that the process tends to unravel as soon as a psychological injury is reported.

According to Worksafe QLD (2015), a psychological injury (e.g. depression, anxiety) must be diagnosed by a medical practitioner and have resulted in the workplace from a single event or over a period of time.

Causes of psychological injury include, but are not limited to, workplace bullying, excessive workload, exposure to a traumatic event or unfair action taken by management. Once a psychological injury has been reported, it is imperative that it be investigated from a safety perspective.

Whilst the steps associated with the safety investigation of a psychological injury are the same as a physical injury investigation, there tends to be a common perception that psychological injury investigations should be treated separately or differently.

For example, when asked how a psychological injury is investigated, the response is quite often “the incident management framework doesn’t cover psychological injuries, that’s what workers compensation investigations are for, right?

Yes, it is important to note that psychological injuries can be investigated from a workers compensation perspective if a claim has been made. However, these type of investigations do not necessarily examine the injury from a safety-related systemic perspective.

The primary purpose of a workers compensation investigation is to examine the validity of a workers compensation claim. This means that whilst compensation can be determined, the valuable information regarding the effectiveness of the organisation’s health and safety management system with regard to psychosocial risk may be lost.

Further to this, if an individual does not submit a workers compensation claim, the incident may be closed out without investigation, or become a HR matter under investigation.

In these cases, the organisation may miss the opportunity to obtain a holistic understanding of the root causes in order to ensure the workplace is adequately identifying and managing psychosocial hazards. As such, there may be a missed opportunity to address any deficiencies in the system. This may result in the injured worker taking longer periods of time off work in order to avoid returning to the same work environment that may very well have caused or contributed to their injury.

The missed opportunity to improve the health and safety management system and the potential consequences of extended lost time highlights the point that ALL injuries should be investigated from a safety perspective.

The purpose of a safety investigation is to understand the work-related factors that contributed to an injury in order to prevent recurrence or exacerbation of the injury. Practically, this may mean that the HR and safety investigations are combined or information is gathered from various sources to minimise the impact on the injured worker being interviewed multiple times.

Although psychological injuries can be more complex with a multitude of factors, both work and personal, that contribute to the injury, there are a number of benefits of investigating psychological injuries from a safety perspective. These include:

  • The ability to rectify system deficiencies and therefore a reduced likelihood of a similar incident occurring;
  • Engagement with the injured employee, potentially preventing future claims and reducing the amount of lost time;
  • Reduced workers compensation claims and associated costs;
  • Enhanced employee wellbeing, engagement and satisfaction associated with managing psychosocial hazards; and
  • Reduced costs associated with absenteeism, turnover and poor morale/staff engagement.

Research has found that psychological injuries cost organisations an average of four times more than physical injuries. According to Comcare (2014), psychological injuries often result in an average direct cost of $205,000 and this does not factor in the indirect costs related to turnover, lost productivity and absenteeism. The direct and indirect costs associated with psychological injuries certainly raise a suitable business case for increasing efforts on prevention.

With this in mind, some tips for ensuring a thorough, transparent investigation include:

  • Follow the safety investigation process in the same way you would for a physical injury (i.e. gather evidence, interview the injured person and any witnesses, determine the causes and contributing factors and make recommendations for corrective action to address system deficiencies)
  • Educate investigators in how to interview injured workers (and witnesses where applicable) with the aim to remain impartial, non-judgemental, gather the facts and base findings off evidence
  • Ensure confidentiality clauses are built into the incident notification and investigation processes around sensitive issues
  • Ensure incident management processes consider the interaction between HR and workers compensation processes
  • Quality assure all investigations to ensure the focus remains as originally intended and the lines between safety and HR do not become blurred. The safety investigation must at all times focus on system deficiencies and how to rectify these, not the individual behaviour
  • Engage an independent investigator with experience in psychological injury safety investigations to assist in developing, reviewing and establishing your processes.


Comcare (2014). Comcare set to tackle rising cost of psychological injuries accessed 16/01/2015.

Worksafe QLD (2015). Psychological or psychiatric injury claims accessed 16/01/2015.

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TMS Consulting