“Workers Compensation should be a detour, not a journey for life. Rosemary McKenzie-Ferguson

Set back from the street in a quiet industrial part of Girraween in Sydney’s west is a social enterprise that carves out a place of meaningful work, transition and life-changing purpose, for people whose experience in being injured at work led them into a complex of systemic holes.  

Rosemary McKenzie-Ferguson is the author, powerhouse and patron of the Craig’s Table program, which supports people who have been injured at work and who find themselves stuck in a hard place. Initially from Adelaide, Rosemary has been in Sydney for 15 months, to trial delivery of the program – which is unique in the world – together with with colleague Corey Williams, and supported by NSW insurance and care organisation, iCare.

With a background and professional life in social work, Rosemary’s experience of being injured at work and navigating existing systems of support and compensation gave her insight into a startling gap. Processes were frighteningly impenetrable. The longer-term implications of choices made at such a difficult time were unclear, and informed decision-making not factored into the process. Rosemary’s difficult journey put her on the path to developing a program for a significant, systemically uncategorised number of people. 

In Greater Western Sydney there are thousands of people affected by Workers compensation claims. In wider Sydney the figure is even greater. The majority of people injured at work return within 6-8 months.  However, without a clear understanding of legal and medical implications, of complex correspondence, or advice and assistance with rehabilitation options and future work – some people end up on a difficult path, not entirely of their choosing. Craig’s Table exists for injured workers who are chronically affected by their experiences, following a Workers Compensation claim.  

Some of the reasons it is hard to return to work include limited or reduced medical capacity, which has compounded over a long period of time into more complex problems, such as loss. One overwhelming obstacle is participants’ sense of self-limitation, based around medical capacity. There are social justice needs – such as finding money for rent and living expenses – and for many, Craig’s Table offers the first sight of potential self-realisation they have encountered in years. 

Not being able to return to work can result in significant, incremental loss: of personal identity through work, of workplace family and social context, of income, of community connections. Flow-on effects from this can be subtle – such as an increasing sense of change, or gradual impacts on family and quality of life, causing tension, conflict, and breakdown. There is also an implied or perceived limitation to employment opportunities inherent to the question on many job application forms: Have you ever had a WC claim? 

Injured workers are not categorically recognised by the Australian Taxation Office or Australian Council of Social Services, so related projects are not eligible for funding. As individuals are technically regarded as employed, injured workers do not have access to social benefits associated with government allowances – such as health care cards or benefits. 

When a person is injured at work, this is what occurs:  

  1. Pain. Damage is unknown. Want pain to stop. 
  • Immediate need for medical help 
  • Doctor advises of Workers Compensation process 
  • One of the conditions on the form is to do with medical authority 
  • Strangers have control of your life

2. Begin to navigate a system 

3. Try to handle the situation and deal with a compromised physical function 

       4. Try to maintain normality 

Under the new program trial in NSW, participants are referred by their case manager. Many of the participants haven’t worked for years. Rosemary says for the purposes of the program, their injury stops at the gates.

Prior to starting the program, Rosemary and her team can talk to the medical provider and caseworker to get a picture of each person’s situation.
“We first need to learn what physical, mental and emotional restrictions people have so we know what they can do. The next step is to come in and have an interview, and we ask them: what do you want to do?
For some, it’s the first time since they were injured and lost capacity that anyone has asked them this question.”

The Craig’s Table program runs for 26 weeks. It includes a schedule of required training modules that help participants start the journey back to who they are and where they are going. 

The schedule of activity fits into a participant’s life as it is now, enabling opportunities for attainable doing, achieving and self-extension. Training begins with a Leadership Day, which Rosemary says is fundamental to participants’ learning to lead themselves. An Emotional Intelligence and Resilience training session considers personal reactivity and self-control, and a Financial Management session covers basics such as budgeting, paying down debts, and language skills to negotiate with institutions. Vocational skills training includes First-aid, food handling, and Work, Health and Safety. 

The enterprise operates on an open-house policy, so that participants can also drop in whenever they like, outside of scheduled sessions. One participant has established the carefully-tended garden, set up on pallets.  Everyone helps to maintains the facilities, which include a kitchen, lounge, a quiet room, a meeting room, outdoor space and organisational spaces that encourage interaction.  The enterprise is in the process of establishing an Op-Shop – to be run by participants – a men’s shed and a chicken coop, with plans for a sustainable café.  

Craig’s Table operates within the Worker’s Compensation system, at its edges, but it is also outside the system. This ensures a freedom from established thinking and categorical assumptions that have, in part, produced the types of impacts and deficits Rosemary sought to address, in writing her program.  

Under the current Early Intervention measures that inform WC, outcomes can include a return to work at a reduced capacity, in a reduced role – which Rosemary says can result in a quality reduction, in professional life. The aim of Craig’s Table is to give participants back their quality.  

“We have learned to look for that a-ha moment, when the idea hits them, of what it is they would like to do. It means that person has realised that they have choice, direction and ability. It’s a wonderful moment.” 

By identifying skills, interests and capacity, participants are supported to drive their own future. With wider industry awareness and increased support, Rosemary says the new career direction could readily be linked to previous, pre-injury occupations. Ideally, referral would be made at the point of impacting with the Workers Compensation system. 

The idea for this ambitious enterprise had been germinating since Rosemary’s own experience as an injured worker. The program was developed in the sunroom at her home in Adelaide, following an extensive period of uncertainty, knowledge-gathering and research. Under her own funding, Rosemary trialled the program in Adelaide – naming it as a tribute to a talented injured worker, with whom she had worked.  Its rapid success drew attention and further opportunities. In 2014, iCare approached Rosemary about trialling it in NSW. The Craig’s Table program has been written to fit into every state legislation governing Workers Compensation. Its initial success in NSW has been rapid and promises further applications: doubtless, throughout the world. In no danger of being unduly effected by success, with characteristic modesty Rosemary remarks “I never thought anyone would pay any attention to my idea.”