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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.

Common causes of psychological hazards

Psychological hazards occur in many professions as part of the job design.

The 12 most common causes of psychological health issues in the workplace are:

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.

Psychological risk and injury is cumulative. The likelihood of injury increases over time if the risks are not controlled adequately.

Employer responsibilities

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.

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.

Worker responsibilities

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

DODON'T
  • hold regular team meetings to discuss projected workload for the following week and address anticipated absences
  • meet with individuals to discuss workload and identify challenges encountered or anticipated
  • develop personal work plans to ensure workers are aware of their job responsibilities
  • identify peaks and troughs for workload and incorporate into staffing rosters
  • allocate resources such as time and equipment to ensure workers can undertake their jobs properly
  • ensure utilisation of skills within everyday work
  • ensure workers have adequate time management skills and provide training where needed
  • give realistic deadlines
  • rotate job tasks for repetitive or highly demanding tasks or to reduce exposure time for workers’ dealing with aggressive clients
  • minimise environmental stressors (e.g. noise, heat, vibration)
  • ask people to undertake tasks they are not trained or skilled to do
  • expect people to work longer hours than rostered to complete tasks
  • increase an individual’s workload without appropriate resources for the task
  • under-utilise skills
  • limit workers to repetitive and monotonous tasks
  • ask people to undertake tasks they are not trained or skilled to do
  • expect people to work longer hours than rostered to complete tasks
  • increase an individual’s workload without appropriate resources for the task
  • under-utilise skills
  • limit workers to repetitive and monotonous tasks

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.

DODON'T
  • engage workers in making decisions about the way they do their work
  • allow workers to participate in the decisions making processes about issues that affect their work
  • conduct a performance review processes as this can be an opportunity for workers to have input into the way they do their work
  • provide opportunities for skill development
  • expect workers to stay after hours without prior consultation
  • dictate how workers are to carry out all duties involved in their role – provide some autonomy in decision making wherever possible

Poor support

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.

DODON'T
  • provide a workplace culture that supports open communication so workers feel comfortable in discussing issues
  • provide training, skill development and employee assistance service to workers
  • promote work-life balance by allowing for flexibility
  • improve supervisor/managerial skills through coaching, mentoring and/or training
  • utilise regular performance reviews for managers and workers to provide support and constructive advice for future performance
  • provide opportunities for career and professional development (e.g. acting in managerial roles during the manager’s absence / higher duties)
  • promoting effective early rehabilitation for all injuries
  • use performance tools as a disciplinary measure
  • discriminate against people or use bullying as a tactic to elicit performance

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.

DODON'T
  • provide up-to-date position descriptions
  • provide an organisational chart that gives a clear view of structure and communication channels
  • provide an induction to all new workers
  • develop personal work plans
  • discuss roles and work plans at team meetings
  • ensure workers have clear goals and performance standards
  • change job functions or position descriptions without consultation and discussion

Poor workplace relationships

Poor workplace relationships include workplaces where there is unacceptable behaviours, gossip, harassment, or bullying.

DODON'T
  • provide education on work-related bullying, violence and conflict resolution
  • define what is acceptable behaviour within the workplace (e.g. code of conduct) and ensure all workers and managers understand this
  • promote communication within and between teams
  • provide information on support services available and how to access them such as an employee assistance program
  • put processes in place which address action to be taken in the event behaviour is unacceptable (e.g. complaints handling and investigations, potential disciplinary actions)
  • treat each case individually and ensure that it is addressed in a fair and just manner
  • allow unacceptable behaviour to continue
  • leave conflict unresolved
  • delay acting on any complaints received

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.

DODON'T
  • involve workers in the change process via communication and consultation
  • identify the key issues of the change and provide information to workers
  • ensure workers are informed of the implications of the change on their respective positions and roles as this information comes available
  • identify methods of communication to meet the needs of workers in advising of the change process, such as meetings, emails
  • disregard the impact it may have on individuals or teams, as even minor changes can affect individuals
  • keep workers in the dark

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.

DODON'T
  • ensure that workplace rules are applied fairly, consistently and in an unbiased manner
  • ensure there is a transparent grievance and appeal process
  • promote and encourage a positive and fair work environment
  • ignore unfair work practices. The experience of perceived injustice at work can be harmful to both the individual and the workplace

Low recognition and reward

Low recognition and reward can include a lack of meaningful performance discussions, providing non-specific recognition, or inequitable reward practices.

DODON'T
  • recognise individual and team contributions and achievements
  • ensure recognition and rewards are appropriate and relevant for the worker or team
  • show overt favouritism to a worker or group of workers

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.

DODON'T
  • ensure there is a communication system for workers in remote or isolated areas
  • have in place back up communication systems such as satellite phone, radio or EPERB
  • check in regularly with workers who are remote or isolated
  • have a clear understanding of who will communicate with remote or isolated workers, when, and what will occur if they are unable to be contacted
  • ensure there are adequate provisions such as water, spare tyres and first aid equipment in field vehicles
  • assume workers will contact the business if needed - they may not be able to
  • assume others will know what process to follow if workers cannot be contacted. All workers and managers should understand the communication systems being used and emergency process, if required
  • allow workers to work in remote or isolated conditions on their own, if at all possible

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.

DODON'T
  • regularly assess environmental conditions such as heat, noise, chemicals in atmosphere, dust, etc
  • monitor specifically at the area where the workers are located
  • ensure there are controls in place to protect workers (eg regular rest breaks, hearing PPE, masks or ventilated hoods, safety glasses, appropriate uniform materials)
  • risk assess tasks to ensure that adequate controls are in place
  • ignore feedback from workers regarding environmental conditions
  • provide inadequate or inappropriate PPE as this is a waste of money, workers may not use it and it may not be effective
  • monitor in areas that would have unrealistic results
  • ignore the risk assessment and the controls

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.

DODON'T
  • have a process in place to manage the risk of violence and trauma while at the workplace
  • consult with those potentially faced with violence or trauma in the workplace
  • give every person a role if there is an incidence of violence (eg one person stands with the affected worker for support, one person phones police, one person redirects the public)
  • research controls such as personal alarms, jump barriers at counters, mirrors where offenders are forced to observe their behaviour, etc
  • if persons have to be seen in enclosed areas, consult with workers to create policy for safe interaction (eg worker desk to be next to the door, emergency alarms on desks)
  • contact any worker affected by violence or trauma as soon as possible to check their wellbeing and encourage them to see their doctor to assess their health
  • consider having an Employee Assistance Program to provide support to workers
  • expect field workers to work alone if there is a risk of violence or trauma
  • neglect to consult with those conducting the work
  • ignore the threat of violence and trauma to workers
  • expect workers to cope or manage without management assistance and support

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.

DODON'T
  • ensure all management have a full appreciation of the work experienced by the workforce
  • create supportive policy so workers understand how the workplace will ensure they are protected from risks of secondary trauma
  • consider consulting with workers to create a supportive peer network to contact affected workers
  • ensure all managers communicate with workers who may have witnessed trauma
  • consider having an Employee Assistance Program to provide support to workers
  • expect that workers will cope with secondary and vicarious trauma - research shows this is not the case
  • forget to consult with workers in creating controls to manage their health
  • underestimate the psychological damage that can occur from witnessing traumatic incidents