Work health and safety includes mental health
Under the Work Health and Safety (National Uniform Legislation) Act 2011 (the WHS Act) a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) has a legal responsibility to manage hazards and risks in the workplace.
Recognising and managing psychosocial hazards and associated risks in the workplace that may lead to psychological (mental) and physical injuries is an essential part of creating a safe, healthy and productive workplace in controlling the impacts on workers’ health, safety and wellbeing.
A hazard is a situation or thing that has the potential to harm a person. Most people understand hazards that may include hazardous manual tasks, noisy machinery, a moving forklift, chemicals, electricity and working at heights, however have little understanding of psychosocial hazards.
Psychosocial hazards are factors in the design or management of work that increase the risk of work-related stress, which can potentially lead to psychological or physical harm.
Work-related psychosocial and physical hazards can be connected and one can affect the other. Workers who do not feel safe at work due to psychosocial hazards can be at risk of developing work-related stress. Workers who are stressed have a higher risk of psychological injury and their concentration and decision-making abilities can be affected, increasing the risk of psychological and physical injury.
On average, work-related psychological injuries have longer recovery times, higher costs, and require more time away from work. For the 2020/2021 period, 11.2% of all workers compensation claims across all industry sectors in the Northern Territory were for psychological injuries costing approximately eight million dollars.
Psychosocial hazards are often overlooked as they may not be as obvious as physical hazards. Some examples of psychosocial hazards leading to risks are:
- Excessive workloads
- Repetitive work
- Conflicting demands and lack of role clarity
- Aggressive or abusive behaviours, including bullying and violence at the workplace
- Lack of involvement in making decisions that affect the worker and lack of influence over the way the job is done
- Poorly managed organisational change, job insecurity
- Poor work design
- Ineffective communication, lack of support from management or colleagues
- Poor management of return to work plans for injured workers
These risks may result in negative psychological, physical and social outcomes such as work-related stress, burnout or depression.
Work-related stress is the physical, mental and emotional reactions that occur when a worker perceives the demands of their work exceed their ability or resources to cope. Work-related stress if prolonged and/or severe can cause both psychological and physical harm. The longer that the work-related stresses continue unresolved, the higher the risk that a psychological injury will occur.
Stress is not the same as pressure or workplace demands. Most job roles involve some degree of stress, however when the worker feels they are unable to cope with repeated stressors or there are no support mechanisms to manage the situation, stress can manifest in ways that become detrimental to the worker and the business. Stress is not an illness in itself but can result in illness or make existing issues worse.
Psychological risk and injury is cumulative. The likelihood of injury increases over time if the risks are not controlled adequately.
To meet your duties to ensure health and safety, you must eliminate or minimise psychosocial risks so far as is reasonably practicable. To achieve this, just as for any other hazard, you can apply the risk management process described in the Code of Practice: How to manage work health and safety risk.
The first step in the risk management process is to identify psychosocial hazards. This involves identifying the aspects of work and situations that could potentially harm people and why these may be occurring. This step should also assist PCBUs to identify where and when workers are exposed to psychosocial hazards and if controls are not adequately eliminating or minimising risks from known hazards.
Safe Work Australia’s publication Work-related psychological health and safety: A systematic approach to meeting your duties provides guidance to anyone who has a duty to prevent and manage harm to workers’ psychological health.
Safe Work Australia have developed an evidence based psychosocial risk assessment survey tool that is easy to use to help to identify and manage work-related risks to psychological health and includes supporting resources for businesses. The tool, People at Work survey is available digitally to all Australian organisations at no cost. Further information and a link to the free People at Work survey is available on the NT WorkSafe website.