Preparing for a psychosocial hazards inspection

International Exhibition & Conference Group Pty Ltd

Monday, 21 August, 2023

Preparing for a psychosocial hazards inspection

Employers are obligated to identify and address psychosocial hazards within the workplace, under the new WHS safety regulations.

According to Dr Georgi Toma, Director of Heart and Brain Works, mental wellbeing at work is not an individual problem — but rather, the joint responsibility of employer and employees.

“Psychosocial hazards can cause serious and lasting psychological harm, including depression, anxiety, burnout and PTSD. As we’ve seen in a recent High Court case, these new regulations place the onus of care, management and prevention on the employer,” Toma said.

A 2021 McKinsey report found that almost 50% of the workforce is suffering from burnout, with many employees experiencing chronic stress on a regular basis, and wanting their workplaces to care more about their wellbeing.

Understanding psychosocial hazards

According to the new regulations, a psychosocial hazard is an aspect of work that carries the potential to cause psychological harm when an employee is exposed to it for a long period of time, at high frequency and/or intensity. Psychosocial hazards can arise from or relate to:

  • the design or management of work
  • a work environment
  • plant at a workplace (eg, machinery, equipment)
  • workplace interactions and behaviours.

“Our audits of different workplaces found that the most common psychosocial hazards include high job demands resulting from staff shortages, incivility, poor organisational change management and ineffective systems/processes,” Toma said.

“The interesting thing about psychosocial hazards is that they are complex to measure, given their subjective nature. However, rigorous methodologies can be employed to compensate for that. In our audits, for example, we don’t assess hazards in isolation but rather in relation to each other. This is because there is research evidence showing, for example, that good support from a manager offsets some of the negative impact of high workload, as does high autonomy, in some cases.”

To meet their obligations, she said, employers must familiarise themselves with the legislation, and then take steps to identify workplace hazards by consulting their employees. It is important to collect data on these aspects of work, to enable measurement and monitoring. Once the risks have been assessed, a risk management plan can be developed and different measures implemented to mitigate hazards.

Where to start

According to Toma, there are a few guiding questions that can help organisations begin to think about psychosocial hazards identification:

  • Are there any aspects related to the way that tasks or jobs are designed, organised and managed that might cause stress?
  • Are there any hazardous aspects in the work environment that might affect mental health?
  • Are the systems, machinery, equipment we use likely to cause stress responses in staff?
  • Does the way people interact with each other have any negative outcomes?
  • Are there instances of bullying, sexual harassment or aggression in our workplace?

“It is important to understand your areas of risk and their real underlying causes. For example, a hazard like high workload might be underpinned by very different causes. For one organisation it might be staff shortage that’s causing it, but in others we’ve seen it was actually ineffective systems. In our audits we make sure we use both qualitative and quantitative data to understand the real causes of problems. That allows us to share recommendations for controls that are effective,” Toma said.

Getting a positive return on investment

Although it might be difficult in the beginning for organisations to implement the new legislation, Toma believes it will ultimately help to increase growth and positive outcomes for both employees and employers.

“Considering that employees represent the highest cost to the company, an investment in employee wellbeing will most certainly deliver ROI. In fact, a study from the New Zealand Institute for Economic Research (2020) found that for each $1 invested in employee wellbeing an organisation can get back between $5 to $12 through improvements in productivity and retention,” she said.

Toma will be presenting at the Sydney Workplace Health and Safety Show, taking place from 20–21 September 2023 at the Sydney Showground. Her presentation, “Psychosocial Hazards — insights from audits across different industries”, is scheduled for 9:15 am on 20 September 2023. She will talk about the main psychosocial hazards found in audits conducted over the last years across different sectors. She will also discuss effective strategies to mitigate those hazards.

Image credit: Anthony Eddy

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