On the return-to-work frontline: a renewed focus on mental health

Last updated on April 28, 2022 
Meet Grace Cairns, a long-standing Allianz employee who is leading efforts to help people return to work after absences caused by personal injury.

“The longer a person is away from work, the less likely it is that they will ever return to work.”

It’s a modern workplace reality that Grace Cairns, Senior Manager, Allianz Claims and Customer Performance says informs much of her work with personal injury cases.

Helping employees return to work after a physical or psychological injury requires compassion and human-centred understanding. It also requires an innovative approach to claims management – improving processes and being open to shifts in thinking and best practice.

Finding opportunities for improvement, and implementing them with an empathetic touch, forms the mainstay of Grace’s role. She examines our service delivery and processes from a continuous improvement lens. Grace seeks to find innovative programs and initiatives to improve the experience for workers and employers.

She has also recently taken on management of a client engagement function by overseeing the client service managers responsible for Allianz’s relationships with NSW Government agencies.

“We look at how the government agency workers' compensation programs are performing and how we can reduce the risk of injury by making their workplaces safer, both physically and psychologically,” Grace says. “We also look at how best to work collaboratively in helping workers recover and return to work following a workplace injury.”

Our Future Thriving Workplaces report (PDF, 2.3MB) found that costs of workers' compensation claims relating to mental health have risen by an average of 22 per cent year-on-year since 2017. The report also found that an overwhelming 80 per cent of employees surveyed want their employers to take better action to address mental health in the workplace.

Grace explains that mental health injuries are also rising as a proportion of total workplace injuries.

The reasons for this are varied. One positive we are seeing in the workplace is the continuous efforts and investments from employers, specifically in relation to mental health, but also wellbeing more broadly. A key development is the rise of peer-support programs that enable staff to help other staff with difficulties they might be experiencing.

“That’s all about upskilling employees – they don’t need to be managers or leaders,” Grace says. “Upskilling someone as a mental health first aider or mental health champion means they can help someone if they’re in a vulnerable situation or experiencing mental ill-health. It means a staff member doesn’t have to speak to their direct manager; it’s the peer who can link that person to appropriate support.”

Much of the innovative work Grace does in the area of worker recovery is aimed at assisting the most vulnerable.

Evidence shows that people in regional areas of New South Wales have poorer return-to-work outcomes than those in metropolitan Sydney. To address this issue, Grace led the roll out of the Regional Claims Specialist Program in 2020.

The program involves claims specialists providing extra support to workers in regional communities who’ve had a workplace injury and don’t have access to the same resources as city workers. These include people who face psychosocial barriers to recovery, as well as significant mental health issues.

“The program helps to link people who have suffered a workplace injury to local community supports who can help them with their recovery,” Grace explains.

Grace has also been closely involved in Allianz’s Individual Placement Support (IPS) pilot. The pilot program draws inspiration from work currently underway in the UK and targets long-term disability clients who have significant mental health issues.

The aim is to help those who’ve had a psychological injury, or developed a secondary psychological injury as a result of a physical injury, to find employment when they can’t return to their pre-injury position.

“It’s a good example of us looking at international programs of work that are performing well and adapting them to fit within the Australian workers' compensation guidelines and environment,” Grace says.

The IPS pilot program is a perfect example of an initiative designed with the individual at the centre – in this case, people who have been on claims for a significant period.

It’s also the result of applying a continuous-improvement approach, although Grace says there is never an end-game.

“Continuous improvement is an evolving thing,” she says. “There’s always new ways to better help people who’ve had a workplace injury or better help employers provide safer workplaces.”


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