Psychosocial hazards at work - changes to Australian WHS laws
What are psychosocial hazards?
Psychosocial hazards are aspects of work and management that can increase the risk of stress and result in harm to workers. These hazards may affect mental health, leading to psychological issues, or physical health, causing injury and illness. They arise from poor workplace relationships, high job demands, and low levels of support and control. Understanding and managing these risks is essential for maintaining a healthy and productive workplace.
How do psychosocial hazards cause harm?
Psychosocial hazards pose distinct challenges to employee well-being. Stress from these risks can lead to psychological issues such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical problems like muscle injuries and chronic conditions. When multiple stressors like high workload and poor support happen simultaneously, they can worsen their impact on an employee's health.
Management's role is crucial in identifying and managing these hazards. They must look at the whole environment and not just individual issues. Doing so helps prevent the compound effects of psychosocial risks, protect employees' health, and maintain workplace productivity.
What are the common psychosocial hazards at work?
According to SafeWork NSW, workplaces may contain various psychosocial hazards. Below is a list of the most common ones:
1. Role overload (high workloads or job demands)
Excessive workloads can overwhelm employees, leading to stress and burnout. This occurs when the volume of work exceeds an employee's capacity to manage it effectively within the required timeframes or when the complexity of tasks demands constant high-level cognitive or emotional effort. For example:
- Teachers grading papers for large classes with minimal time.
- IT support staff dealing with a high volume of complex queries.
2. Role underload (low workloads or job demands)
Conversely, insufficient work or tasks that don't fully engage an employee's skills can lead to boredom and a lack of fulfilment. This often happens in roles where the work is highly repetitive, or the level of effort required is minimal. For example:
- Factory workers tasked with simple, repetitive assembly tasks for extended periods.
- Receptionists at low-traffic businesses with long stretches of inactivity.
3. Exposure to traumatic events
Jobs that involve facing human suffering, accidents, or abuse carry the risk of secondary trauma and psychological harm. Employees in these roles are repeatedly exposed to events that are highly distressing or disturbing, which can have a profound effect on their mental health. For example:
- Child protection workers that have to investigate and manage complex and traumatic cases.
- Firefighters, police and paramedics witnessing the aftermath of severe accidents.
4. Role conflict or lack of role clarity
Stress arises when employees are unclear about their job responsibilities or face conflicting demands. This can occur in poorly defined roles or environments where communication about expectations is inconsistent. For example:
- Middle managers receiving contradictory goals from senior management.
- Customer service agents balancing quality service with pressure to handle calls quickly.
5. Low job control
Stress can also result from a lack of control over work tasks and processes. Employees who have little control over how they perform their duties or are unable to make decisions that affect their work are at a higher risk of feeling powerless and stressed. For example:
- Retail employees with no authority to handle customer complaints independently.
- Data entry clerks required to follow rigid procedures without any flexibility.
5. Conflict or poor workplace relationships
Interpersonal conflicts and poor relationships with colleagues or supervisors can be significant sources of stress. This can include overt disagreements, subtle tensions, or a general lack of harmony in the workplace. For example:
- Teams with incompatible working styles leading to frequent project conflicts.
- An employee facing passive-aggressive behaviour from a co-worker.
6. Poor support from supervisors and managers
When employees lack adequate support from their superiors, they may feel undervalued and overstretched. This includes having insufficient guidance, emotional support, feedback, or resources to perform their job effectively. For example:
- Sales staff without access to up-to-date product training.
- Nurses in a hospital wing without sufficient administrative support.
7. Poor co-worker support
The absence of help and cooperation from peers can isolate employees and increase their workload, particularly in team-oriented settings. For example:
- A new team member struggling without an onboarding mentor.
- Construction workers on a site where everyone works independently, despite safety requiring teamwork.
8. Workplace violence
Any form of violence in the workplace, whether from colleagues or clients, creates an unsafe and distressing environment. This includes physical violence, threats, and any aggressive behaviour. For example:
- Bank employees facing the threat of robbery.
- Security personnel managing aggressive behaviour in public spaces.
Persistent intimidating or undermining behaviours constitute bullying and can lead to a range of psychological and physical health problems for the victims. For example:
- An office worker being systematically excluded from meetings and team activities.
- Apprentices subjected to continual criticism and belittlement.
10. Harassment, including sexual harassment
Harassment in the workplace, whether related to sex, race, religion, or any other personal characteristic, can significantly impact an employee's mental health and well-being. For example:
- Service staff enduring inappropriate comments from customers.
- Office employees dealing with persistent unwelcome advances from a colleague.
11. Inadequate reward and recognition
Employees may feel demotivated and undervalued when their efforts are not recognised or rewarded appropriately, especially if they consistently perform at a high level. For example:
- A staff member consistently delivering projects on time but receiving no acknowledgment.
- A long-term employee being passed over for promotions despite a solid performance record.
12. Hazardous working environments
Physical hazards and unsafe working conditions can pose risks to physical health and cause psychological stress, especially if employees feel their safety is compromised. For example:
- Workers in poorly ventilated environments exposed to hazardous chemicals.
- Staff in noisy workplaces without adequate hearing protection.
13. Remote or isolated work
Employees working alone or in remote locations may face challenges related to isolation, which can affect their mental health and their ability to get support in emergencies. For example:
- Night-shift workers in hospitals, convenience stores or petrol stations with little foot traffic and support.
- Truck drivers on long-haul routes or remote mining jobs without regular human contact.
14. Poor procedural justice (processes for making decisions)
Perceived unfairness in the application of workplace policies and decision-making processes can lead to feelings of resentment and injustice. For example:
- Employees in a company experiencing favouritism in shift allocations.
- A team feeling sidelined because their feedback is consistently ignored during departmental changes.
15. Poor organisational change consultation
Inadequate communication and support during organisational changes can lead to uncertainty and resistance, and create stress among employees. For example:
- Workers in a firm where new software is implemented without proper training or input.
- Staff in a retail chain undergoing restructuring with little notice or explanation of new roles.
New laws and compliance requirements
New Australian work health and safety laws have recently been updated to place greater emphasis on managing psychosocial hazards. Let's explore what these changes entail and what the new WHS duties mean for Australian workplaces.
Changes to psychosocial regulations in the Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011
In April 2023, significant changes were made to the Commonwealth Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011, focusing on psychosocial hazards. Employers must proactively identify and manage risks to workers' psychological health and safety. This involves reviewing approaches to managing psychosocial hazards and risks and creating mentally healthy workplaces, which includes engaging with workers and consulting them on these matters. Comcare provides guidance on psychosocial hazards and offers educational resources to support these regulatory changes.
Changes to the Work Health and Safety Amendment Act 2022
In September 2023, the Work Health and Safety Amendment Act 2022 came into effect, implementing recommendations from the 2018 review of the Model WHS Laws. The amendments include:
- Broadening the Category 1 offence to include negligence.
- Prohibiting insurance for monetary penalties.
- Enhancing inspector powers.
- Extending the deadline for prosecution requests.
- Allowing Health and Safety Representatives to choose their training courses.
These changes strengthen the framework for managing workplace health and safety, including psychosocial risks.
Compliance requirements for employers
Employers must now treat the management of psychosocial hazards with the same seriousness as physical health risks. This involves ensuring that work systems are safe, the working environment is conducive to mental health, and all workers have the necessary resources to perform their jobs safely. Employers are expected to eliminate psychosocial hazards where possible or, if not practicable, to minimise these risks as much as reasonably achievable.
The responsibility extends beyond direct employees to any other individuals who might be affected by the work carried out, including contractors and clients. With these legislative updates, employers need to reassess their workplace practices and ensure they are in full compliance with the new requirements, which include but are not limited to:
- Establishing safe work systems and environments.
- Handling and storing equipment, substances safely.
- Providing adequate welfare facilities.
- Offering necessary training, information, and supervision.
- Monitoring worker health and workplace conditions to control risks effectively.
In addition to safety duties, organisations must navigate outsourcing, contracting, and procurement arrangements carefully to prevent creating psychosocial hazards for workers involved in these operations. Transparent communication is essential in managing shared duties to protect and promote the health, safety, and well-being of all workers.
Code of Practice
Managing the Risk of Psychosocial Hazards at Work: Code of Practice 2022 is a document by Safe Work Australia that provides practical advice on managing risks associated with psychosocial hazards in the workplace. It outlines a systematic approach to managing work-related psychological health and safety, including identifying hazards, assessing and controlling risks, and reviewing control measures to ensure they are effective.
Businesses should use this code as a framework to:
- Understand their duties under the work health and safety (WHS) laws.
- Identify psychosocial hazards such as high job demands, low job control, poor support, lack of role clarity, poor organisational change management, workplace relationships, low recognition and reward, poor organisational justice, poor environmental conditions, and violent or traumatic events.
- Assess the risks these hazards pose to workers by considering the nature of the work, how it is organised and managed, and the working environment.
- Implement effective control measures, including job design, work environment and facilities, work schedules, and work systems.
- Maintain and review the control measures to ensure they remain effective, considering changes in the workplace or workforce.
The code emphasises the importance of consultation with workers and their representatives in managing psychosocial risks to improve psychological health and safety in the workplace.
Managing psychosocial risks in the workplace
People at Work survey
The People at Work survey is a comprehensive, evidence-based psychosocial risk assessment tool. It's designed to measure psychosocial hazards and factors in the workplace, providing a clear picture of the psychological health and safety climate. Workplaces can use this survey to comply with health and safety duties, manage work-related psychosocial hazards, and prevent psychological harm. It offers automated and customised reports, interactive learning modules, and resources to support the implementation of a psychosocial risk management approach.
The Code of Practice 2022 underscores the value of anonymous workplace reporting mechanisms. These systems allow employees to report safety concerns without fear of repercussions, crucial for issues impacting employment or career progression. The benefits of such tools and software include increased reporting of issues, a more accurate assessment of workplace climate, and the ability to address problems proactively, fostering a safer and more supportive work environment.
Reduce psychological or physical harm with Elker
Elker is an anonymous reporting platform that empowers employees to report workplace issues confidently and securely. It's a critical asset for Australian businesses aiming to comply with the latest WHS laws addressing psychosocial hazards. The platform's intuitive interface facilitates the discreet submission of reports, from minor concerns to serious workplace misconduct.
With real-time analytics and customisable workflows, Elker enables organisations to detect and address issues promptly, promoting a healthier, more inclusive workplace environment. By integrating Elker, companies can demonstrate their commitment to employee well-being and regulatory adherence, making it an essential component of modern workplace safety strategies. For a detailed overview of Elker's capabilities and how it can benefit your organisation, visit the features page. For a tour of the platform, book a demo here.