RTW Matters follows the journey of a young secretary forced out of her job by a common health condition.

Anna Kelsey-Sugg

In this and subsequent articles on Deanne's case, we learn about her WorkCover journey and hear why both she and her employer is so distressed by the process.

This is the beginning of the story. 

Deanne* is worried that soon she won't be able to afford to pay her rent and she'll lose her flat. She may have to change suburbs, move to a share house and find a completely different sort of job. She's anxious about being able to continue living the life she's used to.

At only thirty-six years of age Deanne has a long working life ahead of her, but her career has been thrown into uncertainty by a common work condition, an overuse muscle strain.

As she describes her compensation journey so far her brow is furrowed and her hands clasp together. She stares into the distance, sad, but concentrated, as she recounts how her story began.

Deanne has worked as a secretary for 18 years. She is good at her job and she enjoys it. Her role includes typing at a computer for up to seven hours a day, with repetitive outreaching for a computer mouse or a hard copy document. She has been with her current employer for nearly ten years, and shares a comfortable and familiar relationship with her colleagues and managers alike.

Early last year she began to feel pain in her upper back which, as the year progressed, developed in intensity so that she could no longer remain seated at her desk for the seven hour work day. Concerned, Deanne sought massage treatment to relieve the pain. It continued to worsen. She attended her doctor who recommended she be placed on restricted work duties for ten days.

During the ten-day period Deanne's pain eased, but as soon as she returned to normal duties it flared up again. At this stage the workplace organised an ergonomic review of her work station and found several unsatisfactorily positioned items, such as the mouse and the computer screen.

These ergonomic improvements, occurring so far down the track, did little to help her pain. She was placed on another restricted duties plan for six weeks before slowly reintegrating typing duties into her working day.

Her symptoms remained.

For a time she sought to grin and bear it, but soon the intensity of pain was a struggle. Deanne began a course of physiotherapy treatment and a muscle strengthening program. Then she saw a second physiotherapist for neck and back manipulation. Neither treatment eased the pain.

She was referred to a surgeon who advised that no operation would assist. He recommended anti-inflammatory tablets. She returned to massage treatment which helped, and still helps, more than other treatments.

It's not just at work that Deanne feels the impact of her back pain. Her hobbies, among them drawing, require a sedentary position and stretching her arms. After a short time this causes too much discomfort to continue. She has grown anxious about her life and despite her young age now questions her health and career prospects. She feels unqualified for a different type of work and is unsure how she can make a living if she is unable to continue as a secretary.

Her anxiety has been compounded by a workplace largely ill-equipped with the knowledge to manage and support Deanne through her work injury. In her restricted duties plans the extra typing she couldn't do was absorbed by her colleagues. They became annoyed at their increased workload to compensate for an injury they could see no physical signs of. Deanne began to feel ostracised from what was once a family-like workplace.

She felt guilty, like she couldn't mention her pain, and instead tried to hide it for fear of coming across as a hypochondriac. She began to doubt herself, becoming upset and feeling undeserving of the pay she was receiving while undertaking restricted duties. She exhausted herself keeping constantly busy, occupying for every minute of the working day so as to appear and to feel “worthy”. She apologised continuously for herself and her restricted ability.

Eventually Deanne summoned the courage to confront her colleagues who by this stage were barely speaking to her. She explained the ins and outs of her injury, offered an insight to her colleagues and explained that she too would have been annoyed had her workload increased to compensate for another worker's seemingly 'minor' affliction.

Once space had been cleared for open dialogue, Deanne's colleagues asked questions about her injury. They then felt more knowledgeable about her situation and as a consequence more patient and empathetic. Communication with peers improved the situation. They understood that she took her work seriously and that the situation had been emotionally and physically painful.

Management, however, maintained a level of pressure on Deanne to recover – quickly. She encountered comments from her managers to the tune of “Come on, are you better yet?”

She was questioned for leaving work to attend medical appointments and treatment sessions, she faced insinuations that in leaving to get to these appointments she was “bludging”. In reality, Deanne found appointment days more stressful than others. She would arrive at work, busy herself with her restricted duties, leave to catch public transport to the rooms of her medical therapist, then catch public transport to return to her workplace to complete the working day.

There was little certainty about how long the situation would continue, and what could be done to improve things.

Eventually a compensation claim was lodged. Both Deanne and her employer expected this process would give them direction, provide a way forward, help their uncertainty.

But it led them deeper into the quagmire.

To be continued...

*Name changed to ensure anonymity.