How to assess psychosocial hazards

New legislation for Western Australia puts spotlight on psychological safety at work

How to assess psychosocial hazards

Psychological safety in the workplace is now a priority. Every state and territory in Australia now either has legislation outlining the responsibilities of the employer when it comes to psychological safety or has related legislation waiting to be enacted.

Western Australia is the most recent state to pass new work health and safety legislation for the control of psychosocial risks, making it illegal not to specifically deal with these risks in workplaces.

The legislation was passed in the Western Australian Parliament as of December 23, 2022.

(See below for a full list of the latest requirements for all of the states.)

What are psychosocial hazards?

Everyone’s work involves psychosocial hazards that increase the risk of work-related stress that can harm people’s mental and physical health due to the ways their job has been designed, the social interactions their job requires, and the workspaces in which their job happens.

Hazards can include: unachievable job demands, a lack of role clarity, inadequate reward and recognition, conflict and poor workplace relationships and interactions, poor change management, poor organisational justice, bullying, harassment, and poor physical environment.

Safe Work Australia has a detailed outline of what mental health hazards and other psychological risks an employer should be conscious of. Employers can identify any potential psychological risks allowing them to put preventive measures in place to best protect their workforce.

The role of human resources

“Each workplace comes with a unique set of psychosocial hazards,” Emily Johnson, workplace psychologist and co-founder of Get Mentally Fit, said. “Before assessing your workplace's unique hazards, start by familiarising yourself with where they may come and what they may include.

“Depending on their workplace's physical nature and communication streams, human resources need to employ the most effective ways of distributing information to promote awareness around each employees' unique psychosocial risks factors. Employees need to understand their rights and responsibilities relating to mental Health WHS, which should be clearly outlined, available and distributed via a customised policy document.”

Human resources has a vital role to play and needs to work closely with executive management and legal counsel to ensure that all avenues are covered to protect both the employer and employee, she says.

“Regardless of the nature of the organisation, human resources need to be very actively involved in an organisation's mental health policy and initiatives.

“I have seen successful examples where human resource departments have independently taken the lead in managing mental health WHS, and where they've actively contributed as a stakeholder in an organisation's mental wellbeing committee. Ultimately, there isn't a one-size fits all approach and human resources must critically evaluate, with all stakeholders, the best solution to suit their organisation.”

Psychological injuries usually require a more extended period of recovery and higher costs than physical injuries, according to SafeWork Australia.

Boosting awareness

By providing employees with learning material, employers can ensure that their communication methods are clear and everyone understands from day one what is, and isn’t, acceptable. This helps build a culture of trust.

Increasing literacy to identify and proactively address workplace psychosocial hazards for individuals (me level), leaders and teams (we level) and across the organisation (us level) is a good way to start, according to Michelle McQuaid, founder of The Michelle McQuaid Group.

“Evaluating safety regularly by providing affordable, actionable, and evidence-based quantitative and qualitative tools to inform workplace, leadership and individual practices also helps.”

Creating an evidence-based safety toolbox by training leaders and teams in tiny daily safety nudges to navigate the risks of work-related stress is essential, she said.

“You need quick and effective ways to have safety coaching conversations, psychological safety practices to make working together easier, and organisational tools to build a safe and caring culture,” said McQuaid.

“Building determination to sustain a psychologically safe work environment through leadership triads and community-of-practice to ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of safety investment is also a good starting point.”

Australian employers are bracing for a rise in costs due to absenteeism as mental health impacts the workplace. Post-pandemic, the number of days off as a result of poor psychological health is predicted to increase by 20%.

Assessing workplace hazards

HR can work to identify hazards by reviewing existing workplace data such as workers’ compensation claims, employee assistance program issues log, industrial relations disputes, safety audits, exit interviews, and employee surveys, says McQuaid, along with completing direct observations of teams at work, and reviewing workplace systems.

“[It’s about] assessing and prioritising the risks by understanding the nature of the harm that could be caused by the hazards, how serious the harm could be, and the likelihood of harm occurring through surveys and conversations about the hazards with leaders and employees.  Given the subjective nature of many of the hazards, it is important that this assessment is conducted intelligently.

Employers will also want to minimise or control the risks “by implementing practical measures that build a shared commitment to psychological safety for individuals, leaders and teams and across the organisation, she said.

“Reviewing control measures on a regular basis and in the event of an incident by creating safe spaces for ongoing learning and discussion about the ways your people work together.”

Roundup by states

NSW: SafeWork NSW has developed a Code of Practice for Managing psychosocial hazards at work. It is an approved Code of Practice under section 274 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act) by way of inclusion in the definition of “health” in section 4. This means that employers are already under an obligation to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the psychological health of their workers while they are at work.

Victoria: New psychological health regulations for Victorian employers are expected to commence this year. Significant changes to occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation are expected to commence later in 2023, which will affect all Victorian public sector employers.

Queensland: Workplaces have an obligation to protect the health and safety of workers under Queensland's resources safety and health legislation. This includes managing the risk of exposure to psychosocial hazards.

South Australia: SafeWork SA will prioritise all psychological risk complaints according to the risk to the health and safety of people in the workplace.

Tasmania: Tasmanian employers have a responsibility under the Work Health and Safety Act 2012 to identify, assess and manage risks to workers’ health and safety arising from employment, including risks of psychological harm.

Western Australia: Western Australia has amended the work health and safety regulations for mines and general workplaces to implement model WHS regulations prepared by Safe Work Australia for implementation by Australia's harmonised jurisdictions. The work health and safety regulations now specifically deal with the identification of psychosocial risks and the appropriate control measures to manage those risks.

They require a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) to eliminate psychosocial risks, or to minimise them as much as is reasonably practical, putting them on the same footing as other significant hazards such as falls or operating machinery.

Businesses already have a duty to manage psychosocial risks under the primary duty of care in the Work Health and Safety Act 2020.

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