Finalist 2023

Stepping Stones to Worker Wellbeing

WorkSafe Victoria / Paper Giant

‘Stepping Stones’ aims to reduce the impacts of stigma and isolation on Victorian workers recovering from workplace mental injury.

‘Stepping Stones’, a service designed with connection in mind, aims to reduce the impacts of stigma, isolation and a lack of support on Victorian workers recovering from workplace mental injury. By connecting workers impacted by mental injury with nonprofits seeking volunteers, it provides a safe and structured space to explore capacity and reconnect with the community.

Design Brief:

Workplace mental injury is a major issue in Victoria. In 2022, claims for work-related mental injuries made up 15.1 per cent of all new claims (up from 13.1 per cent the previous year) and are on track to grow to a third of all WorkSafe claims by the end of the decade.

In June 2021, more than 55 percent of employees who took leave due to mental injury were still on leave after six months, compared with just 23 percent with physical injuries.

The claims process can contribute to feelings of isolation and powerlessness, which can further delay recovery. This has flow-on effects for workers’ health and for employers’ businesses, as well as WorkSafe’s ability to run a sustainable scheme.

WorkSafe engaged Paper Giant to co-create a new service concept in partnership with stakeholders, to empower workers to recover and regain work confidence.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

Stepping Stones connects workers impacted by mental injury with nonprofits seeking volunteers. The service sits within WorkSafe and is a low-cost, flexible service designed to put workers’ needs and goals front and centre.

During a twelve-week co-design process, over fifty representatives from across the claims process were engaged. Our research methods/approaches included human-centred design, semi-structured interviews and exploratory research.

We collaborated extensively to ensure the service was user-centred and fit-for-purpose, with our ‘Jobs To Be Done’ framework clearly identifying actors’ motivations.

We identified resourcing as a ‘pain point’ for both WorkSafe and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which we then built into the service: Stepping Stones utilises virtually no additional resources whilst delivering impact.

The use of service blueprints, journey maps, and storyboards meant potential failures in implementation were clearly defined, and their mitigation was incorporated into the design.
Stepping Stones sits within WorkSafe, which means no legislative changes were required for implementation. WorkSafe was engaged at every step of the design process, meaning the organisation has a strong sense of ownership.

Of all concepts ideated using co-design principles, Stepping Stones was chosen because it:

  • Provides a ‘low-stakes’ space to regain confidence and explore interests
  • Minimises re-traumatisation-risk from the premature return to the pre-injury workplace
  • Facilitates wide-reaching social benefit

The project team consisted of the following members. Paper Giant: Reuben Stanton, Lottie Greally, Matthew Wilcox, Russell Pongho. Worksafe: Karen Chapman. Fiona Slocombe, Lucas Kowalski, Steven Petridis, Sean Burns, Ryan Hargreaves.

Design Excellence

Stepping Stones draws on extensive user-research to create a deceptively simple solution, which prioritises innovative use of existing infrastructure. Charities, WorkSafe, employers, workers and occupational rehab specialists operate within their scope to produce benefits for workers, the economy and society.

Stepping Stones recognises that every worker’s injury must be catered to sensitively: accommodating their diverse contexts and experiences. It also recognises the importance of trust and agency — decisions about recovery must be made with, not for, its users.

Together with their occupational rehabilitation providers, workers investigate their desired organisations and choose their placements. They are in full control of what capacity they can contribute, with some workers initially offering as little as 15-20mins per day. This feature empowers workers with a sense of control that our research revealed is so often absent during other parts of their claim experience.

Crucially, participation in Stepping Stones does not impact workers’ access to claims compensation. This is a unique offering, in that workers who would otherwise choose to re-enter employment would be forced to forfeit access to the medical and fiscal support provided through the WorkCover scheme. Through Stepping Stones, workers are rewarded — rather than penalised — for rebuilding their wellbeing and confidence.

It provides workers at risk of disengaging from work long-term with an opportunity to rebuild their confidence, and increase the likelihood of recovery and return to work.

Stepping Stones reduces the administrative and compensation costs that have come to represent an impediment to the scheme’s sustainability, supporting WorkSafe’s compensation scheme to remain viable.

The simple, ethical process also delivers value to employers, injured workers and the Victorian charity sector.

The no-cost, high-impact nature of the initiative grows its potential to be scaled across other Australian states and beyond.

Design Innovation

Paper Giant’s commissioning for this project was prompted by costly and inequitable service innovation failures.

Previous efforts were unsuccessful for a number of reasons:

  • Misalignment: system actors were not always united in their motivations
  • Misunderstanding: workers’ experiences were often not met with empathy
  • Penalisation rather than motivation: once a worker demonstrated working capacity in a formal environment, their recovery was thought to be ‘proven’, and they risked being denied further compensation

Through a high level of engagement with a range of stakeholders who have varied — and sometimes competing — priorities, we’ve developed a service that successfully mitigates the tension between needs.

The simplicity of the design, and its focus on the individual worker’s needs and goals, means it is responsive to the variability of experience. The low-resource nature of the service means, with small pivots, it can adapt significantly to changes in the context and environment.

The unique value proposition of Stepping Stones is that it acts as a bridge between actors, offering a solution that benefits everyone whilst generating virtually no additional cost:

  • The service sits within the system within which it operates, requiring no legislative change or additional resourcing which would otherwise slow the path to impact
  • Employers gain a more nuanced understanding of the specific return-to-work needs of their employee
  • Workers are equipped to step back into paid work after a chance to practice their rebuilt capacity in a meaningful context
  • Charity organisations gain access to much needed volunteers, enhancing the impact they can make on the community
  • SMEs see a quicker return of workers who are genuinely ready to return to work, with no additional administrative burden to employers
  • Worksafe can offer injured workers a suitable avenue for rebuilding confidence, resulting over time in reduced compensation and administrative costs.

Design Impact

Work, ideally, is about more than money: it’s about pride, agency and satisfaction. For workers, supported pathways back to work reduce the risk of long-term disengagement. Providing injured workers with a tangible way to make a difference in the community, and eventually, an avenue back to pre-injury work, reduces the inequitable financial and emotional impacts of long-term incapacitation.

Throughout COVID-19, WorkSafe’s workers compensation scheme has seen a sharp increase in mental injury claims, jeopardising the viability and financial sustainability of the scheme. Now, more than ever, WorkSafe benefits from a service that reduces long-term compensation claims and provides ethical ways of supporting worker rehabilitation. WorkSafe is an organisation on which thousands of Victorians rely — its continued sustainability is critical.

Charities have also benefited from Stepping Stones, with access to volunteers who are eager to contribute. Victorian charities provide a substantial portion of the state’s community services, which makes volunteers critical to a healthy, safe and prosperous state.

Since its launch in July 2021, dozens of workers have engaged with Stepping Stones, lending their skills to food banks, animal welfare organisations, and other charities across Victoria.

Project evaluation shows that the service is positively impacting worker well-being:

  • Many workers have increased their donated hours, demonstrating an increased capacity for routine and work tasks
  • Some workers have been offered paid work opportunities at their volunteer placements, a testament to the social value they are contributing
  • Many more workers have identified Stepping Stones as a manageable goal for their well-being and return-to-work journey

This project has the potential to be an exemplar of Victorian public service design, and a reference for others working in social impact design. While responding to a pervasive problem within a complicated system, the solution itself is deceivingly simple, requiring minimal input to deliver impact.

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