The self-reported health of workers has declined noticeably since 2016 while unsuccessful return to work attempts continue to increase and employee perceptions of employer support have reduced over the past few years, according to a Safe Work Australia analysis.
The National Return to Work Survey found a significantly greater proportion of respondents rated their health as fair or poor in 2021 (31.5 per cent) and 2018 (30.1 per cent), compared to 2016 (21.9 per cent) and 2014 (23.7 per cent).
Furthermore, despite steady headline measures in return to work rates, 2021 continued to see a significant increase in the proportion of unsuccessful return to work attempts (those who had to take additional time off since returning to work, due to their work-related injury or illness), at 25.2 per cent (compared to 19.6 per cent in 2018, which was also significantly higher than the 15.9 per cent seen in 2016).
There were also significant declines in 2021 across all six statements which measure employer support (61.0 per cent to 74.4 per cent) compared to 2018 (65.2 per cent to 79.5 per cent).
The survey is a biennial survey that measures outcomes of ill and injured workers receiving workers’ compensation to better understand their experiences and factors that may influence their return to work.
The survey is a key data source guiding the delivery of the National Return to Work Strategy 2020-2030 and between 22 June and 30 September 2021, a total of 4588 people across Australia were surveyed over the telephone by the Social Research Centre.
The vast majority (91.6 per cent) of all workers surveyed in 2021 reported having returned to work at some time since their work-related injury or illness, while the current return to work rate (the proportion who reported that they had returned to work at any time since their work-related injury or illness and were currently working at the time of survey) was 81.3 per cent in 2021.
The survey also examined psychological distress, and the Kessler 6 Psychological Distress Scale was used in the 2018 and 2021 surveys. Overall, most workers reported no probable serious mental illness (87.1 per cent had a Kessler 6 score of 6 to 18, a similar proportion to 2018).
A significantly higher proportion of those not working at the time of the survey reported probable serious mental illness (a Kessler 6 score of 19 to 30) (37.1 per cent compared to 7.4 per cent of those currently working).
Only 7.1 per cent of those assessed as having a probable serious mental illness in the survey listed a psychologist/psychiatrist as their main healthcare provider. A much larger proportion (37.6 per cent) of people with a mental illness claim to report a psychologist/psychiatrist as being their main healthcare provider.
This highlights a potential gap in mental health treatment, that could better serve people with probable mental illness, not delivered as part of their main injury treatment.