I am regularly contacted by psychologically injured Queensland police officers and civilian staff, after members of QPS management and their injury management team insist that there are no permanent return to work options other than their pre-injury position. Whilst returning to a pre-injury position may be ideal in a perfect world, some employees have sustained their injury in that position through bullying and/or harassment, or through specific triggers associated with that role. In many bullying cases the alleged perpetrator remains in the section or station, which leaves the injured worker at risk of victimisation upon their return.
I’ve also seen some cases where treating medical practitioners advise that the substantive position poses a risk to the health and safety of the officer, and yet the QPS offer little or no alternative options. An employer has a duty of care under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) to provide a safe workplace and safe system of work, and to prevent (as far as reasonably practicable) risks to health and safety. So if a person has sustained an injury in a particular environment and their doctors are saying they may relapse if they are returned there, why do the QPS remain focussed on trying to force the person back into that role? Is it that the organisation is measuring the success of their return to work program on the unrealistic expectation that all injured workers will be able to return to their pre-injury role? Or is it that they find it easier to retire officers than rehabilitate them, and so they set them up to fail? Returning an officer to their substantive position does not necessarily equate to successful workplace rehabilitation, especially if it is not sustainable in the long term.
If an officer is prepared to transfer somewhere else in the State just so they can maintain their employment, why not let them go? Why restrict them to a particular position, especially if tenure is not an issue? It appears that the organisational structure of the QPS restricts transfers that are not merit-based. I’m all for gaining positions on merit, but if you have been injured in the workplace through no fault of your own, and a transfer is the difference between medical retirement and remaining employed, surely the latter is the better option and the service should be making some allowances. Transferring to another district or region should not be so difficult within the same organisation.
Problems also arise when workers are given an ultimatum of either returning to a particular position or being medically retired. Employees faced with this situation often feel there is no other option but to return to whatever position the QPS offer, just so they can pay their bills, feed their children, and pay the mortgage. The alternative is to be unemployed and wait for a minimum of 12 months for a Total and Permanent Disability Benefit to be paid (if you qualify). There must be more flexibility, with more reasonable adjustments made to assist workers into a position where they can maintain some degree of job satisfaction and self-worth. The last time I checked, Queensland was a fairly large State. There are vacancies regularly advertised in the Queensland Police Gazette, and most areas will tell you they are short-staffed. Regardless, it seems common practice that an injured officer trying to return to work is limited to a particular station and position, and if they are unable to perform that role, along comes a s.8.3 Notice of Suspicion of Unfitness for Duty (Police Service Administration Act 1990 ).
Another practice that seems to be common is a threatened or actual cessation of access to the Sick Leave Bank (SLB) unless an officer returns to a position nominated by the QPS. For those unfamiliar with the SLB, it is a pool of sick leave to which each officer donates a portion of their own sick leave balance each year. This pool of leave may then be accessed by officers on long term sick leave who have exhausted their own sick leave entitlements and who meet the relevant criteria. The SLB is a truly valuable lifeline for officers who otherwise would not receive any income whilst on sick leave, particularly in cases where workers’ compensation either does not apply or has not been approved. However, access must be approved by a committee, and if the QPS want to apply some pressure to the officer they simply fail to support the application. This leaves the officer financially destitute and means they then not only have to fight to remain employed, but they also have to fight to receive some form of income while on long-term sick leave.
I’ve listened to case conferences between officers, members of QPS management, their treating doctor and a member of their injury management team regarding return to work. What stands out is the inflexibility displayed by the QPS and their representatives. It becomes apparent that there is a lot of ‘chest beating’ going on, with members of QPS management and injury management seemingly letting their egos get in the way of an employee’s successful rehabilitation. This is so incredibly disappointing because workers who feel appreciated and supported will strive to perform. It’s not rocket science. When I went through the process, my Injury Management Coordinator told me that I had to be back on full duties in a certain period of time because I was ‘costing the service money’ (insert eyeroll here).
I had a conversation with a senior member of QPS injury management last year regarding an officer who was being given a hard time. The response was; ‘some people need to accept that they can no longer be a police officer. I mean, I want to be Queen for a day but I can’t’. Really? Wow! Just, WOW. This is a person who is largely responsible for managing the rehabilitation of our injured police, and the officer referred to had been performing full time duties in a non-operational position despite being almost fatally wounded on duty. It’s no wonder the organisation is at an all-time low, and it’s obvious why more people don’t speak up when they are experiencing psychological symptoms. I should add that the employee referred to remains employed by the QPS.
Often employees who are trying to return to work after sick leave are told that there are ‘no positions available, so you will have to apply for a position and win it on merit’. Gaining a position on merit isn’t always that easy either. What about the officers who hold specialist positions such as Fingerprint Bureau, Scenes of Crime or Forensics, but can no longer work in those positions? Some of those officers have held those positions for over a decade. If they are made to apply for an alternative position on merit, how can they possibly succeed without relevant experience. For example, how does a Sergeant at Forensics have a chance at becoming an operational shift supervisor, Domestic Violence Liaison Officer, Watch house Supervisor or any other position outside forensics? So they are again restricted in their return to work options post-injury.
Flexibility should be encouraged, retraining should be offered if necessary, and realistic goals should be set regarding return to work options for all staff. If a doctor is saying an officer is at risk in a particular position, then the organisation should be doing their best to try and accommodate the person into another spot. The QPS has a long way to go before they can convince me that their people matter.