The University of Newcastle, Australia

Making light work of it

With expertise in workplace injury management and mental health, Associate Professor Carole James is focused on creating safer workplaces.

Carole James 

The research of Associate Professor Carole James centres on work; people's engagement with, or lack of engagement with, work.

A long history as a practicing occupational therapy clinician, focused mainly on occupational rehabilitation, has informed Carole's research directions.

"I'm involved in several projects linked to work," she says.

"Some of these projects involve mental health, some involve musculoskeletal injuries, and some are looking at preventing injuries in the workplace."

A researcher with boundless curiosity, Carole especially enjoys collaborating with people who share her passions.

"It's very inspiring to be involved with the gurus, my gurus. When I was researching, I was so in awe of what these people were doing. Then I finally get to meet with them, work with them, write with them, it's really quite exciting."

Special interests in mental health within the workplace, and capacity building within the community, have recently seen Carole join a multidisciplinary team looking at mental health in the mining industry.

SEA CHANGE

A shortage of occupational therapists in Australia led to Carole being sponsored to come from the United Kingdom to work in the Hunter as an Occupational Therapist. She arrived in 1989 where she began working within the occupational rehabilitation arena.  In 1999 she moved into the world of academia at the University of Newcastle.

Carole completed her PhD in 2011, which focused on the reliability and validity of the WorkHab Functional Capacity Evaluations (FCE). Most often applied post-injury, this assessment tool is used predominantly within occupational rehabilitation to appraise a person's physical ability to perform a job they are returning to.

Carole has since been invited to join an international team of experts to investigate better understanding of Functional Capacity Evaluation performance in different societal contexts across multiple countries.

PRACTICAL SOLUTIONS

It's not just fellow academics enjoying the fruits of Carole's irrepressible enthusiasm. Workplaces also benefit.

"I feel quite strongly that research must be useful for the workplace, not just useful for us," Carole proclaims. 

"Although I sit within the discipline of occupational health and safety, I am still an occupational therapist."

"And to me, being an occupational therapist is about assisting people to be able to do things and making sure that we're getting the best out of everybody."

Students also reap the benefits of Carole's dedication to her field. Instrumental in the development of a Masters Program in Workplace Injury Management in 2006, Carole also had a large role in the development of a Master of Workplace Health and Safety which commenced in 2013. 

She has been Program Convenor of the post graduate programs in Occupational Health and Safety since 2006.

Carole is also a core team member of the University of Newcastle's virtual Centre for Resources, Health and Safety (CRHS).

Launched by the Newcastle Institute of Energy and Resources (NIER) in late 2014 through a partnership with Aspen Medical, the multidisciplinary CRHS team is focused on the health and safety of the resource sector, and the communities attached to those industries.

MINDING MINING MINDS

With funding from the Australian Coal Association Research Program (ACARP), the CRHS team are working in league with the University of Newcastle, the Hunter Institute of Mental Health, and other industry partners to identify ways of improving the mental health and well-being of the mining community.

The first phase of the project collected data on the prevalence of mental health issues across the sector.

Team members have been using various methods to gather this information from mine sites in NSW and Queensland, including focus groups, surveys and the scoping of existing mental health services. 

The intervention included a range of education measures to improve mental health awareness for employees and supervisors, a peer assisted model using workplace champions, and a review of policy.  The next step is collecting the follow up data.

"Generally we are not comfortable talking about mental health in the community," Carole explains.

"Then we look at the workplace, where people are particularly anxious about keeping their jobs, it can be a difficult topic to raise."

This research will provide new knowledge about the extent and impacts of mental health problems in the coal industry and will provide evidence of the effectiveness of the multi-component program to improve the way mental health is addressed.

NURSED BACK TO HEALTH

The realities of returning to work post-injury in the nursing profession are something Carole has studied particularly closely, in partnership with the NSW Nurses Federation, with funding from WorkCover NSW.

Carole believes the role of Return To Work Coordinators (RTWCs) is vital to a successful transition.

"Some of the nursing RTWCs were so ingenious in how they could get an individual back to work," she enthuses.

"We found that in rural areas they were especially creative, because they do not have a large labour pool to draw on."

Carole is supervising a PhD student who is investigating the training given to employees taking on the RTW coordinator role.  The project aims to identify factors that inhibit or influence their effectiveness to provide injured workers with appropriate support.  The end goal is to clarify the specific level of knowledge and expertise necessary for coordination of a successful RTW for injured workers.  

CHANGING FATES

Assessing the processes and systems related to workers well-being, especially those transitioning back to work post-injury, is a vital area of research according to Carole, and one which will always be necessary.

She points out that although industries such as mining and nursing enforce rigorous risk management systems, the human element will always be a factor.

"I don't know that we can engineer out injuries completely because humans are not robots. There will always be accidents, even though you are trying to prevent them as best you can."

Carole believes that within the last twenty years, there has been positive change in the way workplace injury is managed.

"I think things are changing but we still have a way to go," Carole reflects. 

"When I initially got involved with occupational rehab, staying off work until you were fit was the norm," Carole recalls.

"Now people are more accepting of having someone back on suitable duties."

She acknowledges that employers are now more conscious of where their money is being spent, and are realising how much it costs to have an employee off work.

"In reality, coming back to work in some capacity is better for the employee's physical and mental health, and for the productivity of the workplace, so everyone benefits."