- Common causes of psychological hazards
- Employer responsibilities
- Worker responsibilities
- Risk control measures
- People at work psychological risk assessment
- Further information and resources
Like any other physical health and safety risk, psychological health risks from psychosocial hazards must be managed. These hazards are anything in the design or management of work that increases the risk of work-related stress.
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.
Psychological hazards occur in many professions as part of the job design.
Common causes of psychological hazards
The most common causes of psychological health issues in the workplace are:
- high job demands
- low job demands
- low job control
- poor support from supervisors/co-workers
- poor role clarity and role conflict
- poor workplace relationships
- poor organisational change management
- poor organisational justice
- low recognition and reward
- remote and isolated work
- poor environmental conditions
- violent or traumatic events (primary and secondary).
It is important that risk factors are not viewed in isolation as they interact. For example, high demands, low control, low support can result in a highly stressful work environment.
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.
Workers can usually cope with demanding work if:
- the demands are not excessive and ongoing
- supervisors and colleagues are supportive
- workers are given an appropriate amount of autonomy.
People respond to hazards in different ways. Individual differences that may make some workers more susceptible to harm from exposure to the same hazard include:
- being a new or young worker
- having an existing disability, injury or illness
- having previously been exposed to a traumatic event
- workers who are currently experiencing difficult personal circumstances.
By talking to your workers, including these groups, and asking how they are coping you can decide if they may need some additional support so they can do their work safely and well.
Psychological risk and injury is cumulative. The likelihood of injury increases over time if the risks are not controlled adequately.
The employer has a duty to protect workers from the risk of harm from work-related stress. Workers are likely to be exposed to a combination of psychosocial hazards; some may always be present, while others only occasionally. Employers should understand what these risks are and how they can best control them.
Employers should regularly check for psychological health risks by:
- looking at systems of work design and management
- undertaking one-on-one discussions with workers
- reviewing past incidents with a view to minimising reoccurrence.
You can use our psychological health safety checklist to assist you meet your obligations.
Managers and supervisors should understand:
- the job description for each role and provide these to workers
- the individual job demands in each role and whether that level has changed
- the level of control/autonomy in each role and communicate this clearly
- the appropriate level of support needed (supervision, training, resources, employee assistance program) and whether the workforce are aware of these supports
- whether workers have good relationships at work
- how to communicate and manage any business changes to all roles
- the level of remuneration required for each role and ensure that workers are remunerated and recognised adequately and fairly.
Once the hazards at your particular workplace have been identified, you need to look at how you can eliminate or minimise risks.
Many workplaces are good at identifying the psychological hazards, but don’t go to the next step of doing something about it. Once identified, risks must be minimised or ‘controlled’.
Employers and managers should ask themselves these questions:
- What are individual job demands and has the level changed recently?
- Do any workers have too low a level of control/ autonomy in their daily duties?
- Have you provided sufficient support to your workers (management, training, resources, employee assistance program)?
- Do workers have good relationships at work?
- Have you clarified job descriptions appropriately?
- Have you communicated and managed any business changes effectively?
- Are workers remunerated and recognised adequately?
- Are you treating all workers fairly?
By talking to your workers and asking how they are coping you can decide if they may need some additional support so they can do their work safely and well.
You can contribute to a safe workplace by taking responsibility for your safety and the physical and psychological safety of people you work with by:
- reporting psychological safety issues
- providing feedback on consultation
- supporting colleagues, understanding that we do not know the difficulties they may be facing
- ensuring you understand your role and your job description
- requesting training that may be required
- not taking part in toxic workplace interactions.
Risk control measures
Examples of control measures to manage the psychological hazards that can result in work-related stress and possible injury or worker’s compensation claims include:
High and low job demands
High and low job demands include too much or too little work / responsibility and excessive or prolonged time pressures
Low job control
Low job control is where a worker has little control to make decisions about the way they work or the skills used. It also includes inflexible start / finish times and breaks, poor consultation, or little involvement in organisational decisions.
Poor support includes where a worker has no-one to ask for assistance or guidance without shame or blame, geographically dispersed team members or manager, inadequate or lack of training / competency.
Poor role clarity
Poor role clarity include situations where a worker does not understand their role or responsibilities, they have responsibility with no authority, or the role is outside their skills or training.
Poor workplace relationships
Poor workplace relationships include workplaces where there is unacceptable behaviours, gossip, harassment, or bullying.
Poor organisational change management
Poor organisational change management is where changes are taking place within the business but there is a lack of information or clarity on the process being undertaken or there is the perception that management is withholding information.
Poor organisational justice
Poor organisational justice is where some workers are treated differently or more favourably than others. For example, where a policy is in place but seems to only apply to some workers or where managers are being exempt from censure but applies to workers.
Low recognition and reward
Low recognition and reward can include a lack of meaningful performance discussions, providing non-specific recognition, or inequitable reward practices.
Remote and isolation work
Workers undertaking remote and isolated work can experience long travel times, poor communication and few or no people to provide help and support, especially in an emergency.
Poor environmental conditions
Poor environmental conditions include hazardous manual tasks, poor air quality, high noise levels, extreme temperature, working near unsafe machinery, cramped workspace, vibration, poor lighting, temperature and humidity.
Violent or traumatic events
Violent or traumatic events occur when a worker is exposed to abuse or is threatened with harm or experiences actual harm.
Secondary and vicarious trauma
Secondary and vicarious trauma occurs when a worker witnesses a fatality or is involved in investigating a serious injury or fatality. For others, their work may include the need to repeatedly listen to detailed descriptions of traumatic or painful events of others.
Ensure that workers are aware of, and understand the workplace's Grievance and Complaints Resolution Procedure and how to fill in a Grievance and Complaint Report Form.
The last step in the risk management process is to review the effectiveness of control measures, in particular when a psychological injury occurs or before making changes to the current systems.
People at work psychosocial risk assessment
People at Work is a psychosocial risk assessment process. It is Australia’s only validated and evidence based psychosocial risk assessment survey tool with benchmarking that measures psychosocial hazards and factors.
People at Work can help you comply with your health and safety duties, better manage work-related psychosocial hazards and factors and prevent psychological harm.
Organisations that undertake People at Work will have access to:
- the People at Work survey, a psychosocial risk assessment tool that is now available digitally to Australian organisations at no cost
- all materials required to administer and report on the People at Work survey, including access to automated and customised reports, interactive learning modules and resources to assist in implementing a psychosocial risk management approach and evaluating the effectiveness of chosen interventions.
Australian work health and safety regulators have jointly funded People at Work to provide free tools and resources. The hazards measured by the People at Work survey are based on decades of research highlighting the factors that influence a worker’s psychological health and safety. The psychosocial hazards are also based on guidance from Safe Work Australia.
Send a clear message to workers that you value their mental health and wellbeing and reap the benefits of reduced workers’ compensation claims and improved worker productivity, satisfaction and engagement.
Further information and resources
Mentally healthy workplaces toolkit - Work Health and Safety Queensland
Preventing psychological injury under work health and safety laws - Safe Work Australia
Psychosocial health and safety and bullying in Australian workplaces - Safe Work Australia
Psychological health for small business - Work Health and Safety Queensland
Psychosocial risk assessment toolkit - Work Health and Safety Queensland
Wellbeing SA - SA Government
The above information is partially adapted from: SafeWork Australia’s guidance material: Work-related psychological health and safety and Workplace Health and Safety Queensland’s Psychological health for small business.