The Dignity of Work - Rehabilitation and Police Officers enlisted prior to 1988

A Discussion Paper with Roger F. Peters PhD
The NSW Police Officers Association Biennial Conference, Central Coast NSW
May 2006

1. Introduction

This paper explores the anomaly in respect to rehabilitation for officers recruited before 1988 and those attested afterwards.

Secondly, in this paper it is suggested that rehabilitation should not cease for any officer after medical discharge from the NSW Police, but instead continue to be provided in the same way as it is for all other employees who are employed in this State.

Thirdly that rehabilitation is a legitimate part of treatment of psychological injuries and;
It is suggested that changes simply to NSW Police workers compensation policy rather than legislative changes make the recommendations included in this paper relatively easy to act upon.

2. Background

It is noted that frequently when officers, enlisted before 1988, (hereafter referred to as simply "officers") are awarded a Hurt on Duty (HOD) pension, there is some envy by other officers, perhaps even suggesting that such a benefit is undeserved, or something akin to a lottery win. It is important to understand that a HOD pension awarded to a pre 1988 enlisted officer, as lucrative as it may seem, is no more than the entitlements provided by a pension scheme that those officers have paid into for many years. It is somewhat akin to having an income protection policy, in as much as when they are injured, they are simply able to access that which they contributed to.

In recent times there has been a good deal of criticism, and justifiably so in respect to the fact that post 1988 enlisted officers are excluded from this pension scheme. What is generally not considered is that the post 1988 officers in fact have some benefits that should be afforded to all officers of the NSW Police when injured. I refer specifically to the fact that pre 1988 officers, once they are discharged HOD, receive no rehabilitation support, and secondly, no payments are made in respect to their injuries by way of compensation. Post 1988 officers, on the other hand, who are medically discharged, now may not only be eligible for "Blue Ribbon Insurance", but previously the provisions of Section 216, i.e. the "Special Risk" benefit. In addition, and at very least, may be also paid the statutory rate of workers compensation, as indeed is the entitlement of any worker in the State of NSW.

3. An Anomaly That Needs To Be Addressed!

As lucrative that a police pension may seem, consider the following: A school teacher who was recruited at the same time as a pre 1988 enlisted officer may retire due to psychological conditions that may be considered within the more global context of professional "burnout". Under the provisions of their superannuation scheme on medical discharge they will receive, like the police officer, a substantial payment in terms of pension, but will also be able to access the statutory rate of workers compensation (at least), as well as substantial assistance in respect to rehabilitation.

4. Rehabilitation May Constitute Treatment!

In this paper I want to explore a particular aspect of this anomaly. It is common practice that pre 1988 enlisted injured officers receive some support by way of rehabilitation. This, however, is primarily aimed at returning them to their work firstly as a police officer, either in a fully operational role, or thereafter in a restricted duties position. If this is not available, then inevitably the officer is medically discharged. At that time all rehabilitation ceases!

The dignity that work provides may be considered as much a part as therapeutic intervention as the actual psychotherapy. Is it possible that rehabilitation could be seen as part of treatment!

Research in this area emphasises the importance of work in respect to maintaining human health, wellbeing and dignity. For instance in a study last year Exxon examined the morbidity and mortality rates among those who left work at 55 years of age compared to others who continued to work on. The rates of illness, and in fact mortality, were significantly higher in the retiring versus the group that worked on. Work indeed provides more than an income, it provides us with meaning, purpose and dignity.

Bond (2005), a specialist in psychiatric rehabilitation, visited Australia last year and gave a paper in Newcastle. In summary he said the following:"That while medication was commonly thought to be the best way to reduce symptoms of mental illness, working in a regular job in a setting where people were not disabled was a crucial part of recovery". He went on to say, "The feelings of connection and positive self esteem that work created opened up other possibilities of life and most who worked had reduced psychiatric symptoms". This provides a compelling reason to suggest that firstly, work increases the chances of longevity, and secondly, it may in fact be regarded as a crucial even an integral part of the treatment process.

Secondly, we understand that when a HOD is accepted, the officer receives notification by way of a letter from HOD section with words to the effect that "all reasonable medical expenses will be paid". I am suggesting here that rehabilitation may be seen as part of "reasonable assistance" for discharged officers and thus should be provided within the scope of workers compensation entitlements as a legitimate medical expense.

5. Taking the Initiative

To this end, I have had several officers attempt to make application for rehabilitation support from NSW Police HOD section. The officers' medical practitioner has supported this in writing. Importantly, a medical referral validates rehabilitation as being part of necessary treatment, and as such the HOD section should have followed through with an appropriate approval. That approval was not forthcoming in any case.

Had such an approval been gained the officer would then be able to gain access to a process similar to post 1988 enlisted officers and that which is available to all other employees of NSW. Importantly, the provision of rehabilitation could then assist the officer an opportunity to gain meaningful and dignified work, or if that is not possible, provide evidence that may support an application for an increase in their pension.

6. Is Gaining A Psychiatric Opinion Always Appropriate?

Many officers who seek increases in pension are referred to psychiatrists. However, is gaining a psychiatric opinion particularly in respect to an individual's employability valid? The profession of psychiatry may, but probably to not, have skills in matters relating to employment, recruitment, aptitude testing, rehabilitation, etc. Thus, quite often when people are referred to psychiatrists, it is evident that they are assessed more in respect of their current psychiatric morbidity rather than their real prospects of employment.

Indeed, the conclusions they make about fitness are often either inappropriate and or are not in keeping with current Legislation, but particularly miss what is intended in the spirit of that law in respect to rehabilitation. For instance, a psychiatrist recently commented about a previously employed crime manager that he was quite capable of retail sales. This would be akin to telling a psychiatrist that if he could no longer be a psychiatrist then he might be able to be a ward orderly!

7. Dignity, Ability and Prior Training: The Cornerstone of Rehabilitation

It is important to understand that any rehabilitation or return to work plan needs to be undertaken within the spirit of the current NSW Legislation. Any position of employment that an officer should or could take up should be commensurate with their pre injury ability and training. It should also be in accord with some sense of dignity. To do otherwise could undoubtedly aggravate the psychopathology that the officer has experienced and certainly in addition deleteriously impact on the officer's self esteem. Any rehabilitation and employment of police officers outside the NSW Police Force should necessarily ensure that these principles are adhered to in the design of any return to work program.

8. As a Guide to Pension Increases

As indicated above, the suggestion or initiative recommended in this paper in fact represents a "win - win" outcome for officers. Rehabilitation in fact tests, under the guidance of professionals, the employability or otherwise of injured officers. If rehabilitation is unsuccessful or even determined as not possible, then obviously some weight could then be added to any application for an increase in pension from the basic 72.5% up to 85%. It needs to be kept in mind that these applications for increase in pensions should be measured against realistic and reasonable outcomes for employment. To do otherwise would be totally unjust.

9. Conclusion

In this brief discussion paper I have suggested, that there exists not just an anomaly, but also an act of discrimination not previously generally discussed. This discrimination sees current rehabilitation policy solely contingent on simply whether an officer was enlisted prior to 1988 or afterwards. While post 1988 officers continue to seek to have their entitlements one way or another made more comparable, I have suggested here that those who were recruited prior to 1988 and have been medically retired, should be at least provided rehabilitation beyond the date of discharge to assist them find some meaningful and dignified work. If such employment is not found, then this should be part of the supporting argument that would see them receive an increase in their pension commensurate with any percentage loss.

I have also suggested that occupational health professionals are qualified to estimate this loss in employability, but rarely used.

While it would seem that the population I address is relatively small, at least on active duty, (and shrinking rapidly), this initiative stretches to all those hundreds of officers who have been discharged but deprived of rehabilitation in the past, many of whom are struggling with their invalidity and having difficulty coping with "retirement". It's often misunderstood, but there are in fact many officers medically discharged who are relatively young. For instance those who joined in the 1980' may well have been born in the 60's and today be just 40 -50 years of age. Some would say in the "prime of life". The initiative I am suggesting here is that the Association support these men and women and of course their families, by accepting these recommendations. It is true that many officers have gone on post discharge to have productive and useful lives, yet many have not, and as a result are floundering, especially in respect to their psychological wellbeing.

Costing, I understand may be claimed as an immediate objection, but again we find in such a claim yet another anomaly. For instance, the discharge process is tortuously slow, in my region the average is 12 -14 months. It is easy to estimate that if this process was halved to say less than 6 months, then a saving could be made of $30-40k in wages per officer, or nearly three times the estimated cost of a rehabilitation program. The NSW Police seem to have developed a sense of "learned helplessness" in respect to the discharge process and seem content to do nothing to try and streamline it. Yet when they have the will of course to do so, they can act quickly the medical discharge of both a Deputy Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner in the past 12 months gives some evidence of that.

I think what really encourages me to continue pursuing this is that my recommendations expressed here today don't require a change to current Legislation, but instead a simple change in the Police policy guidelines. That is that firstly, rehabilitation is seen as an on-going and integral part of treatment of psychological injuries. Secondly, that the process of rehabilitation is seen and better understood as a partnership with both psychotherapy and medication. Bond (2005) said, as indicated earlier, rehabilitation back to work is a "crucial part of recovery", indeed perhaps the ultimate test as to whether, in the case of psychological injuries at least, the psychotherapeutic treatments have been successful.

References available on request

Brief Resume

Dr Roger Peters gained Degrees in Arts (Sociology) and Science (Psychology) with Honours from Newcastle University in 1980. Later, Roger gained a Masters Degree in Science, and then was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy, for his thesis, "The Psycho-physiological Cost of Irregular Working Hours", which he completed in the United States of America.

Roger has been in private practice for over 20 years and his firm, HEAS - Consultant Psychologists, have offices in Gosford, Singleton and Newcastle. Aside from being a general psychological practice, HEAS' core activity is the provision of Employee Assistance Programs throughout the Hunter and the Central Coast. In addition, Roger is an authority in matters relating to trauma and recovery and has seen in excess of 2000 NSW police officers.

Roger was a member, for three years, of the National Health and Medical Research Committee (Alcohol and other Drugs in Workplace Accidents, a sub-committee). He was Australia's international representative on the Employee Assistance Professional Association based in Maryland, USA. He is a Fellow of the Employee Assistance Professional Association in Australia and past President. Roger is a member of many professional bodies, including being previously Vice President of the Australian College of Private Consulting Psychologists, as well as a foundation member of the Australian Critical Incident Stress Association and the Australian Society for the study of Traumatic Stress.

Roger and his wife, Michele, also a psychologist but now retired, have five adult children and eight grand children. Roger loves to travel, cook, paddle his kayak, and is an avid fan of both cricket and Rugby League Football. In addition Roger works for his local Catholic community of Newcastle.

Note: Roger has now completed his fourth book, "Donkey on the Edge, (Police under Pressure)" which is available here.

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