Employers are obligated to manage their worker’s mental safety as well as their physical safety. Safe Work Australia states that “Work related mental health conditions (also known as psychological injuries) have become a major concern in Australian workplaces due to the negative impact on individual employees, and the costs associated with the long periods away from work that are typical of these claims”*.
Safe Work Australia also reported that mental health conditions was the most common serious claims for diseases (accounting for 68% of disease claims and 9% of claims overall)**. Disturbingly, female employees made a higher percentage of serious claims due to mental health conditions, 14% compared with 6% for male employees.
Increasingly, the workplace has recognised that mental wellbeing of workers is as important as physical health in achieving the most efficient outcomes. The WHS Regulations set out specific duties for employers to eliminate or minimise, so far as reasonably practical, all psychosocial hazards arising from the business or undertaking.
Psychosocial hazards are anything in the design or management of work that increases the risks of work-related stress. Stress itself does not constitute a physical or psychological injury, but the way workers deal with stress, especially if prolonged and/or severe, can lead to physical, or psychological injury. Psychosocial hazard risk factors include:
- Work demands (too high or too low)
- Low job control
- Poor support
- Lack of role clarity
- Poor workplace relationship
- Low levels of recognition and reward
- Poorly managed change
- Poor environmental conditions
- Poor organisational justice
- Remote or isolated work
- Violent or traumatic events
The following diagram illustrates Psychosocial Hazard risk factors and stressors leading to stress.
Consequences of Psychosocial Hazards in the Workplace
Poor mental health and other negative stress manifestations can lead to the following occurring in the workplace:
- Absenteeism – the practice of regularly staying away from work without a good reason
- Presenteeism – the problem of workers being present at work, but not fully functioning mentally or physically
- High turnover – When a high number of employees leave an organisation in a short period of time
- Negative work colleagues and client relationship
All of the above factors will affect business productivity and efficiency. Therefore, it is critical that psychosocial hazards and poor mental health be addressed and eliminated early to prevent its negative manifestations occurring.
How to assess psychosocial risks in your workplace
The only way to get an accurate idea of the likelihood and severity of harm is to ask your workers about their experience of these risk factors. It is their perception of the jobs factors that influence their stress and coping response. The worker’s discernment of what they are experiencing will determine whether they see it as a positive challenge, or as exceedingly stressful and therefore high risk.
The frequency and intensity of the worker’s exposure to each hazard should be considered. For example, infrequent exposure to low level of workplace stress may be unpleasant but does not cause a high risk, while frequent exposure to high levels of conflict can dramatically increase the risk to physical and psychosocial health and safety.
Worker’s consultation is crucial in providing psychologically healthy and safe work environment. Ideally the business should identify who should participate in the risk assessment consultation, which might only focus on those parts of the business where psychosocial hazards have been identified. Alternatively collecting worker’s feedback can be done using focus or small groups (6-10 people from across the business.
Applying controls to manage psychosocial risks
The business must ensure the control measures applied are matched to the problem and risk factors identified. The most suitable control measures will be applied directly to those areas of the business that are high risks. Thus, you do not necessarily need a whole organisation change but may choose to apply controls only in the business area where the risk is located.
Examples of organisational level psychosocial risk controls include:
- Organisational restructure to distribute work loads more fairly and increase support to worker
- Job redesign to reduce or increase the work demands
- Access to resources such as better access to Human Resources support to address poor organisational justice
- Increasing the organisational budget and/or investment to improve poor environmental work conditions
Examples of individual level psychosocial risk controls include:
- Resilience training
- Cognitive behaviour therapy
- Access to counselling services
It is important to note that individual levels of controls are unlikely to be sufficient on their own. The best control measures aim to eliminate or reduce the source of the risks to the work design and the way work is managed, which usually require a higher level organisational control.
Australian WHS authorities have developed a free and reliable risk assessment tools and guide for controls, which businesses can access:
- The People at Work too kit
- The Copenhagen Psychosocial Questionnaire
- The United Kingdom Health and Safety Executive Management Standards Indicator Tool.
Employers can no longer ignore the management of psychosocial risks in the workplace. Managing mental wellbeing is a partnership between employer and workers, and is crucial in maintaining a productive and positively engaged worker in the workplace.
* Safe Work Australia, accessed 5 May 2021, https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/topic/mental-health
** Safe Work Australia, 13 Jan 2021, “Australian Workers’ Compensation Statistics 2018-19”, accessed 26 July 2021, https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/collection/australian-workers-compensation-statistics