Jokes, bullying and RTW

Lara Forth

Lara felt bullied by her case manager and colleagues when she returned to work - even when they were "just joking". Read her story to see how these attitudes very nearly jeopardised her recovery.

In 2007 I worked full time as a picture framer. My work was challenging, busy and physical, but everybody got along and got the job done.

Driving to work in September of that year, I was involved in a five-car pile-up. My injuries included soft tissue trauma, brain swelling and a damaged right temporal lobe. My symptoms included poor short term memory and some physical limitations. I also felt exhausted and emotionally unstable.

I couldn’t continue to work so I lodged a workers’ compensation claim.

Pressure to return to work

Initially, my case manager was very understanding of my condition and supportive of my recovery. However, as time went by her support turned to pressure.

I was taking longer to recover than expected, which prompted my case manager to change my injury plan. When I told her of my concerns, she didn’t seem to take them seriously.

I still don’t understand how she decided what I was capable of. Did she have medical experience or some kind of guidelines from the insurer? Despite me not feeling capable of returning to work, she pushed me back to work just two months after the accident.

Impatient Colleagues

On my return to work I was given limited duties of answering the phone and greeting customers, with a scheduled sit down break every 15 minutes.

It was good of my employer to try to accommodate my injuries, but in reality light duties were extremely difficult to stick to in our busy workshop and shop front.

Because I wasn’t making frames, I was left to receive the deliveries of mat board and moulding (timber to make frames) orders at the loading dock. Since I couldn’t lift anything, the boxes and tubes would pile up and it was a real nuisance for my colleagues, who would then get annoyed with me.

They felt as though they were carrying me, despite the fact that my employer knew I was only capable of limited duties. The allowances they made for me at the start were clearly on a ticking timeframe that just didn’t sync up with my injuries.

Whenever I sat down for my break, colleagues would give me dirty looks as if I was just being lazy and letting down the team. Coupled with the emotional insecurity brought about by my brain injury, it was hard to deal with.

Again and again my workmates would joke that “She looks alright – I bet you she’s faking it”. One colleague presented me with a coloured-in cartoon picture he drew of me on a piece of mat board. There was a speech bubble coming out of my mouth that read, “I can’t help you, I’ve hurt my back”. Despite being a joke, this was very upsetting for me. It just showed how little my co-workers knew about what I’d been through, despite my case worker and employer being much better informed.

Aren’t you better yet?

My GP was very clear in saying that soft tissue damage can take up to two years to heal. However, my case manager continually told me that I “should be better by now”. Her advice was contrary to what my doctor told me, and how I actually felt. By the end of my dealings with her, I felt that she had been bullying me to try and speed up my recovery.

Bullying system

I was experiencing excellent results doing a neuropsychology course to help improve my brain function and emotional condition. But then out of the blue the program was stopped half way through (the neuro-feedback program runs for 40 sessions, and I had only done just over 20).

I was not given any clear indication of why my insurer cut the funding for the program, but the psychologist running the course expressed his concern that all the benefits I had up to this point may reverse because the therapy was incomplete.

I was also getting positive physical results with my physiotherapist, whom I had built a productive relationship with. However, because I was recovering at a slower rate than my insurer expected, my case manager said I had to see a new physiotherapist, selected by the insurer.

During the first appointment with this new therapist she made me do stretches that I told her I could not perform due to pain, however she told me, “you should be able to do it” and manipulated me into the positions anyway. She caused me great physical pain and her manner was so abrupt and clinical that I cried during the session.

The next day I could not get out of bed because of the pain. I contacted my case manager and told her of my negative experience with the new therapist. I asked if I could please see my original physiotherapist, but was told I had to see an insurer-approved therapist from now on.

Breaking point

It seemed as though even the people who were supposed to be helping me were pushing me around instead. The whole situation, particularly the psychological pressure, became too much for me. I felt disempowered and sick of proving myself.

I believe I would have recovered at a significantly faster rate if my case manager had not been breathing down my neck.

I decided to quit my job at the picture framers and close my compensation case. I took matters into my own hands by paying out of my own pocket for treatment providers that I felt comfortable with. I am fortunate enough that I could afford this, and I’m lucky that I did.

A few short months later, I was ready to apply for casual administration jobs that were simple and physically light. I took myself out of the bullying environments and got back to work on my own terms.

Looking back, taking charge of my recovery was my only option. There’s no doubt that leading up to that point was very hard, but it was the best possible thing I could have done. I finally felt like I was in charge of my life once again.

Published 01 August, 2010 | Updated 21 May, 2019