Workplace psychosocial risks are factors in the work environment that can cause harm to an employee’s health. There is increasing focus among Australian workplace regulatory bodies in ensuring that organisations provide a psychosocially safe work environment for their employees. When organisations manage these risks proactively, their efforts can yield employee, organisational and financial benefits; yet many organisations are uncertain about how to go about this risk assessment and management process.
Fortunately, there are publicly available resources and professional services that can guide organisations in creating a psychosocially safe work environment. Our recent white paper identified common workplace psychosocial risk factors, the benefits of assessing and managing these risks, and outlined a four-phase framework on how to assess and manage these risks – we are pleased to share our findings with you.
Workplace psychosocial risks are the factors at work that are debilitative to employees’ psychological and physical health. These factors usually relate to aspects of work design and management and can apply to social and organisational aspects at work (Cox & Griffiths, 2005). As one of Australia’s leading workplace regulatory bodies, Safe Work Australia has identified 13 psychosocial risk factors that organisations should prioritise to assess and manage:
A review of the model Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws in Australia (Boland, 2018) revealed widespread acknowledgement that psychological health is neglected in the model WHS regulations and codes. Furthermore, there is uncertainty among employers about how to address psychological health in the workplace. Smaller businesses also provided feedback that they wanted more prescriptive and practical guidance to help them identify and manage psychosocial risks and hazards.
There are benefits to a psychosocially healthy workplace:
Employees who work in a psychosocially safe work environment enjoy cognitive and physical benefits such as better concentration, improved decision making (Broadbent, Cooper, FitzGerald & Parkes, 1982), and are at lower risk of infectious and cardiovascular diseases (Schaubroeck, Jones &, Xie, 2001; Steptoe & Kivimaki, 2012). These employees also perform better at work, are more satisfied with their jobs, and are less likely to leave their jobs (Jex, 1998; Khamisa, Peltzer, Ilic & Oldenburg, 2016).
Organisations also reap financial benefits when they invest in a mentally healthy workplace. Industry research indicates a positive Return On Investment (ROI) of between $1.50 to $4.00 for every dollar invested in strategies to foster a mentally healthy workplace (PwC, 2014; SafeWork NSW, 2017). These ROI often take the form of increased productivity and lower number of compensation claims.
In addition, by proactively addressing psychosocial risks, organisations will be compliant with WHS regulations and successfully navigate workplace inspections by WHS regulatory bodies (such as Safe Work Australia). Obtaining satisfactory outcomes from these inspections will ensure business continuity, as well as stakeholder and employee assurance in the organisational WHS policies and procedures.
These factors provide evidence for a pressing need for organisations to address psychosocial risks within the workplace. Fortunately, there are a plethora of resources and organisational services that are available to help organisations create a psychosocially safe workplace.
Publicly available resources published by the Government of Western Australia Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS) and Safe Work Australia, provide practical guidance for organisations to safeguard their employees against psychosocial risk factors.
The assessment and management of psychosocial risks follows a four-phase process that is governed by four overarching principles.
Fig 1. The framework to assess and manage workplace psychosocial risks
Commitment is needed from the leadership and management team in addressing psychosocial risks. This commitment may take the form of:
The risk assessment and management process should be conducted in consultation with employees and their Health and Safety Representatives (where available). Consultation with workers can take the form of pre-job start or toolbox discussions, focus groups, worker surveys, WHS committee meetings, team meetings and individual discussions. It is also important that the privacy and confidentiality of workers is respected during consultation.
Consultation may cover the following:
Organisations have a legal obligation to consult, cooperate and coordinate activities with others who have a WHS duty in relation to the same matter. For example, an organisation sharing the same activity or workspace may contribute to any psychological health and safety risks. Consulting, cooperating and coordinating WHS efforts will allow for effective and efficient risk management.
Organisations have an obligation, as far as practically possible, to provide employees with information, training, instruction and supervision to protect them from risks to their psychological health and safety while at work.
The pre-contracting and contracting phase involves obtaining buy-in from the senior leadership team in investing in a psychosocial risk assessment and management project. This phase also entails obtaining commitment from senior leadership to share organisational data that is crucial to the risk assessment process, considering the timeframe available for the project, as well as the organizational readiness to implement changes to achieve a more psychosocially safe workplace.
The information gathering phase entails data collection and analysis to identify risk factors, psychological signs and symptoms, and hazards. The information gathering phase should be multi-modal and include sources such as surveys, interviews, organisational data and direct observations.
Risk factors can be considered through organisational and environmental operations within the business. Consideration should also be given to individual risk factors such as being a new or young worker, or workers who have existing vulnerabilities to injury, trauma or have challenging personal circumstances.
Psychological symptoms and signs are the adverse health effects that employees initially experience as a result of psychosocial risk factors. They include physical signs (e.g. increased heart rate and blood pressure), cognitive signs (e.g. forgetfulness and lack of concentration), emotional signs (e.g. irritability and depression) and behavioural signs (e.g. increased smoking and alcohol consumption).
Psychological hazards are the environmental conditions that are harmful to the workers’ psychological and physical health. Hazards at the workplace can be identified through signs of employee strain, organisational data, policies and procedures, and the type and level of workplace relationships and support provided.
The data gleaned from the information gathering phase will inform the risk management and control strategies. These strategies can take the form of primary, secondary and tertiary interventions. Primary interventions are implemented before hazards or injuries/incidents are present. They usually include both organisational and employee level strategies. Secondary interventions are implemented after hazards or injuries are present, but before harm to health develops. They are usually targeted at the employee level. Tertiary interventions are implemented after the hazards have caused harm to health and are targeted at the employee level.
Once risk control measures have been implemented, they need to be continuously monitored, reviewed, and improved to ensure they remain effective. Firstly, there should be accountability to ensure that risk control measures can be implemented and maintained effectively. This may entail assigning managers/supervisors’ authority and resources to implement and maintain control measures effectively. Secondly, the process should include regular maintenance of facilities and equipment, and repairs/replacements to damaged or worn equipment and facilities. Thirdly, there should be up-to-date training to ensure that workers and supervisors have the appropriate competencies to do their jobs safely. Next, there should be up-to-date information about workplace hazards so that controls remain relevant. Lastly, there should be regular reviews of work processes and consultation with workers to assess the effectiveness of existing control measures and the need for new control measures to be implemented.
Psychosocial risks are prevalent in the workplace and can be debilitative if not managed appropriately and promptly. On the other hand, by managing psychosocial risks, organisations can stand to benefit from better employee outcomes, positive ROIs, as well as ensuring legislative compliance. Organisations can refer to publicly available guides to help them address these risk factors but can also seek professional consulting services with organisational development teams for comprehensive psychosocial assessment and management. By following the four-phase process outlined in this white paper, organisations have a framework by which they can assess and manage psychosocial risks.
PeopleSense by Altius delivers industry leading strategies to prevent and manage workplace injuries across all industries. We provide psychological services to over 250 organisations nationally and employ clinically and organisationally trained psychologists who are highly skilled in identifying and managing a wide range of mental health issues within the workplace.