Workers' compensation in post-COVID era

Recent trends in workers' compensation claims is placing the spotlight on workplace wellbeing and whether risk mitigation needs retooling in the post-pandemic world

Workers' compensation in post-COVID era

Insurance News

By Bennett Richardson

This article was produced in partnership with Zurich

Bennett Richardson of Insurance Business asked Angela Bertoncin, Head of Workers’ Compensation at Zurich Financial Services Australia, about emerging risks affecting workers’ compensation.

The shape of the working world is evolving faster than before, and this means that companies need to consider how best to support employee health as workers grapple with change.

Perhaps workers are exhausted from years of COVID upheaval, not adjusting well to hybrid working or more aware of their mental fragility these days? No one knows for sure, but one major insurance company is seeing a rising trend of workers’ compensation claims and related risks.

Claims are now more complex and of longer duration, said Angela Bertoncin, head of workers compensation at Zurich Financial Services Australia.

Physical injuries are becoming increasingly more complex, often involving multiple body parts and there is a definite increase in both primary and secondary psychological claims potentially as a result of underlying health and wellbeing issues, she added.

One focus is the greying employee.

The average age of the Australian worker has increased, and companies need to take this into account. Government statistics show that the workforce participation rate of older Australians more than doubled from 6.1% in 2001 to 15% in 2021.

“The responsibilities for a safe work environment do not change, but workers change as they age,” said Bertoncin.

While safety outcomes can improve in some areas for older workers, there is more risk in other areas.

“There are physical and physiological changes that cannot be reversed so it is important to have a holistic approach to managing risks to aging workers, which reflect these changes, to incorporate protection from hazards and the prevention of ill health,” said Bertoncin.

Company responsibility to provide a safe environment remains the same, even if the ability of the worker in question to handle the work environment is a moving target.

Other possible factors behind the growth in emerging risks to workers include burnout or additional demands on employees, changes to social attitudes, industrial disease, or more underlying health issues adding to recovery such as obesity and diabetes.

Regardless of the cause, employers can play a major role in mitigating negative health outcomes for employees.

“Employer education on early management of injuries, safety culture, early intervention programs for injuries, and mental health programs [all help],” said Bertoncin.

Technology has also come a long way in the last few years and some employers may not be aware of newer solutions available.

“For example, using wearable technology to identify and assess muscle stress risks, identify good and poor practice, [or] improve training methodologies,” she said.

For mental health, it is important to be proactive instead of reactive through having a dedicated wellbeing program.

Zurich provides workers compensation coverage that covers medical and rehabilitation expenses and loss of earnings to help employees to return to work and minimise the financial and human impact of workplace injuries.

“Workers’ compensation is a compulsory and critical cover that protects a business from financial claims when a worker sustains a work-related injury or disease,” said Bertoncin.

With work patterns changing due to the pandemic, including the widespread acceptance of remote working and more outsourcing, it is sometimes not clear what is covered. The lines are being blurred particularly in certain industries such as courier delivery, transport, IT and design, and health care.

Gig economy workers have traditionally been classified as independent contractors, not employees, so they are not covered under workers compensation as the legislation indicates that it must be in the course of employment. But determining at times requires significant investigation, especially if practices at a firm have recently changed or follow a range of patterns.

“It is important for employers to keep track of how their business is changing in the way they are employing workers and contractors,” said Bertoncin.

But remote working for regular employees is covered.

“If people are working from home, it is still a workplace and therefore the duty of care still applies.”

All claims should be made as soon as the worker is aware of an injury whether it is physical or mental, gradual onset or not. Appropriate and immediate intervention is the key to a smooth process for employer and worker and positions everyone for the best possible return to work outcome.

“As soon as symptoms exist and it is related to work, it should be lodged so that the injured worker can obtain the support and treatment they need.”

Zurich Financial Services Australia is the local arm of Zurich Insurance Group – a leading multi-line insurer that serves global and local markets. For 150 years, Zurich has combined global expertise with local care to provide leading wealth and insurance solutions. Zurich’s general insurance business is dedicated to a fully intermediated broker advice model. This approach is paired with a state and regional presence, empowering local teams to make local decisions on the ground. We are passionate about our purpose to ‘create a brighter future together’ and use our resources to contribute to communities through disaster resilience, community partnerships and sustainability.

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