The jurisdictions that win or lose in return to work

Dr Mary Wyatt

An all in comparison finds return to work performance in decline.

In this first of a three-part series, we group the results and compare the trends of major Australia and New Zealand jurisdictions.  We find the 'eastern seaboard' systems have been going backwards, SA playing catch-up, and a few systems where they have not dropped the ball.  

And that overall there has been a steady decline in return to work outcomes between 2005-06 and 2008-09.   

Please see the graphs of the improving and worsening performance of the various Australian and New Zealand jurisdictions.  

The Return to Work Monitor commenced surveying employees in the 90s, and the RTW Monitor reports available on the Heads of Workers Compensation Authorities' (HWCA) website provides information on national trends. We have used the four years of Monitor results available on the HWCA website to analyse the data by jurisdictions. 2005 to 2006 happened to be a high point in returned to work, a longer term view shows return to work rates ebbing and flowing. You will have seen our individual jurisdictional reviews. 

The Monitor results show the rate at which people return to work after an injury AND the rate they returned to sustained work, have both dropped over the last three years. 

The proportion of employees with an injury claim who had returned to work at any time in the first six months of their claim fell by 4% across Australia.  This ranged from a 5% drop in Victoria to a 4% increase in South Australia (SA) - this improvement raises SA up from its previous under performance to close to the national average. 

The rate of sustained return to work fell by 8% across Australia over the last three years.  By jurisdiction the reduction was:

9% in New South Wales,

8% in Victoria* and Queensland,

7% in Northern Territory

4% in New Zealand

1% in Tasmania and Comcare

but a 4% increase in sustained return to work occurred in SA.  

As with the overall return to work rate, the improvements in SA only bring it back to close to the national average.  

The rate of return to work in New Zealand (NZ) increased between 2005-06 and 2006-07, but has subsequently declined.  The overall rate of return to work dropped by 2%, and the rate of sustained return to work fell by 4%. 

It is also important to note that the time taken to return to work has increased in Australia.  There are two measures of this,

·The length of time the person has been back at work identified through the survey - 8% reduction in Australia

·The number of days of compensation paid, identified through claims data from the authority administering the claim - 8% increase in Australia

There has been no material change in the time taken to return to work in New Zealand.

Claim cost data was provided by Australian jurisdictions only.  Claim costs have increased across all jurisdictions, with the average cost of claims at six months up an average of 22%.  This ranged from 11% in SA to 37% in Victoria*.  Information on claims costs was not available for NZ. 

Why is return to work performance in decline, as seen across all of the measures available?

Some jurisdictions have had an increasing focus on return to work over the last few years, as yet we see little positive benefit.  Some jurisdictions, such as Tasmania seem to do consistently well. We've heard it said that Tasmania is a small jurisdiction, small enough so people still talk to each other. When we look at other sections of the Return to Work Monitor, which will review next week, we find that jurisdictions in which an employee says someone is making return to work harder have falling return to work rates.

Our proposition is that return to work success is a measure of people working together, listening to each other and working out a path forward in cooperation.  If you make people go through the motions, they do that. Regulation isn't going to improve outcomes, it's the spirit of working together and wanting the person to be back at work.  Our small survey of readers overwhelmingly said return to work is getting harder, and we see this as an important issue. 

Why have Vic, NSW and Queensland gone backwards?  Comcare, Tasmania and South Australia have either maintained their performance.  What's the difference in approaches, is it the quality of rehab, the focus on short term financial fixes, the focus on process? It's a $57 billion dollar problem and we think not there is not enough discussion and questioning about this huge problem that cost the country a buck of money and can stuff up a person's life forever.

There is an anomaly with the Victorian data, with a greater increase in days compensation paid for employees interviewed in the Return to Work Monitor than for the average of all claims in Victoria. We have requested information from Victoria on this and will provide an update when the information is available.  This may also affect the Victorian return to work performance results. 

Published 12 April, 2010