Psychosocial hazards – how to spot, assess and reduce them

'We've been dancing around this for years, taking small and often inadequate steps to address employee wellbeing with 'sugar-hit' solutions,' says expert

Psychosocial hazards – how to spot, assess and reduce them

Psychosocial hazards have been in the spotlight lately, thanks not only to increased mental health challenges during the pandemic but recent changes from Australia’s government.

And while being proactive – and compliant – may seem like a daunting task, the good news is employers and HR have options in terms of identifying hazards, says Clint Strahan, an organisational psychologist.

“You can look at the data you already have,” he says, citing as examples incident reports and workers compensation claims, absenteeism and leave data, and information on utilisation of EAP.

The other methods he points to are observing how people operate in the workplace, and talking to people through focus groups and interviews. Information can also be successfully gathered via management meetings and surveys, says Strahan, who participated in a recent webinar by LinkedIn called ‘How to Assess Psychosocial Hazards’.  

“Surveys are great in that you can assess all of the hazards talked about by WorkSafe in the Code of Practice,” he says.

“All of these data points can give us an indication of ‘Do we have psychological hazards that exist and what is their severity?’”

‘Dancing around’ employee wellbeing

Amendments to the Australian Work Health and Safety Act make it easier to penalise employers exposing staff to health risks. This highlights the need for psychosocial hazards to be taken more seriously in the workplace, which is a positive move, says Ryan McGrory, an expert in culture, wellbeing and psych safety, who also spoke during the webinar.

“Companies will now be assessed on how well they’re protecting their people from burnout, stress, depression, and more,” he says.

“We’ve been dancing around this for years, taking small and often inadequate steps to address employee wellbeing with ‘sugar-hit’ solutions. No longer will organisations be able to introduce a fruit bowl, set up a ping pong table and put on a yoga class and say they’ve done something for employee wellbeing.”

The most important thing for HR is to make sure their organisation is compliant, says McGrory, founder of exsona.

“They’ll have to quickly see where they are, and how exposed they are,” he says. “This will include getting the executive team across this - and understanding how this could impact them.” 

Surveys are the most popular method for HR leaders to assess psychosocial hazards at their workplace, according to exsona research, followed by workplace assessments and focus groups and interviews.

“This is really a pivotal moment in Australian workplaces where the government and regulators are acknowledging levels of burnout, stress and depression, and forcing organisations to do something,” McGrory says.

Legal obligations around psychosocial hazards

Under Australian law, employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe and healthy workplace which includes managing the risks associated with psychosocial hazards. The new regulations are part of a significant national effort to address the risks.

The Model Code of Practice: Managing psychosocial hazards at work guidelines developed by Safe Work Australia help organizations manage these risks.

“It provides a framework for identifying, assessing and managing psychosocial hazards,” McGrory said in the webinar. “That outlines the responsibilities of employers, managers and workers in promoting a safe and healthy workplace. It also includes guidance on how to develop and implement policies and procedures to prevent and manage psychosocial hazards.

“This code of practice is literally forcing organisations all across the country to assess their hazards and put effective controls in place.”

Psychosocial risks include stress, burnout and depression

Psychosocial hazards are aspects of work which have potential to cause psychological or physical harm.

“This includes things like excessive workloads, tight deadlines, conflicting demands or a lack of control over the ways of working,” says McGrory. “Just like physical risk factors, the accumulation of psychosocial risks can lead to poorer health outcomes like stress, burnout or depression.”

The Code of Practice flags several examples to look out for, he says, including job demands, low job control, poor support, lack of role clarity, remote or isolated work and bullying or harassment.  

Psycological hazards happen for a bunch of reasons, he says, but predominantly exist because of the design or the management of work, the work environment itself, and workplace interaction or behaviours.

“To meet our duties, we have to eliminate or minimise psychosocial risks so far as reasonably practical. And the recommended process is to adopt the risk management lens to identify hazards, assess risks, control risks, and review control measures. It's clear in the Code that all steps have to be supported by consultation.”

In May last year, he said, the Supreme Court of Victoria ordered an employer to pay a former employee $435,000 after she developed PTSD and a depressive disorder as a result of viewing distressing material for her job. Given this emerged before Safe Work Australia's model for the Code was published, it's a clear warning to employers of the seriousness of psychosocial hazards and the legal consequences of non-compliance.

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