Psychosocial risks: the difference between work design and culture
Following a workplace bullying prosecution in October 2023 — where Court Services Victoria was fined for its “toxic” workplace culture — the importance of culture in reducing psychosocial risk was highlighted. However, when considering this outcome in the Coroners Court, it is important to understand the difference between workplace culture and systems such as work design and ISO 45003, writes RANJEETA SINGH, founder of EnableOrg and a health and safety auditor.
What is work design?
People commonly refer to work design as a psychosocial harm prevention tool — but this is a misconception. Rather, work design is a set of rules to help motivate employees and fix repetitive, monotonous jobs. It is essentially an ‘engagement’ job system, and offers a framework where strategy, information, tools, pathways, infrastructure and other resources are aligned and utilised to achieve an outcome. Work design itself will not wholly prevent psychosocial risks or meet legal requirements for psychosocial risk management.
Similarly, ISO 45003 is a wider system designed for the whole organisation. Its purpose is to line up the overall strategy, leadership, planning, resources, operations, continuous improvement and review process frameworks. Further highlighting the fact that ISO 45003 is not a harm prevention ‘fix’, Clause 6 asks the reader to identify their workplace social and psychological risk factors. When a document is asking the reader to identify the problem, it is not fixing the problem. It is drawing their attention to the need to establish what the root-case social and psychological factors are to begin with.
The limitations of systems
Psychosocial risks are sources of harm that stem from social and psychological factors. If workplace bullying is considered as an example of a psychosocial risk, then work design alone will not be successful in preventing harm. Does making a person’s job less monotonous prevent the social and psychological factors that result in bullying? No. Because work design is a systems harm anticipation framework for job engagement — addressed after actual social and psychological factors are mitigated and prevented across an organisation.
This demonstrates the limitations of systems, in that they provide an expertise-based framework only — or the bones. Work design and ISO 45003 don’t give organisations the will, commitment and crucially, the knowledge needed to flesh out these bones. Identifying specific social and psychological risks (compiling a list of things that may or may not actually be present as social and psychological risks) is harm anticipation, not harm prevention. The issues identified may be present within the organisation, or they may not be. But it is the will, commitment and knowledge to address them that matters the most.
Without work design or ISO 45003, it would still be possible to have a healthy workplace — provided the organisation has the willingness, commitment and knowledge. But without commitment and knowledge — even with all the expert work design and ISO 45003 consultants on board — a healthy workplace will not be achieved.
The importance of culture
In the 2023 prosecution against Court Services Victoria, the root cause of the problem was determined to be the workplace culture. This is the foundational requirement for everything else to work, because no system will have sustained benefits without foundational culture support. The author believes that if the workplace culture had been committed to doing the right thing despite some work design and ISO 45003 failings, prosecution would not have been pursued.
If an organisation has high staff turnover due to a toxic workplace; waits for findings by legally appointed investigators to say that it has ignored key repeated behaviours, such as sexual harassment; buries things when reported; or blames victims, then no amount of ‘work design’, ISO 45003 or wellbeing training is going to fix or prevent these issues. It is likely that the only time these issues would be taken seriously within this kind of workplace culture would be during imposed investigations and audits.
The only way to prevent psychosocial harm and mental injury is to really pay attention to staff needs and concerns — get objective, data-driven transparency on what these are to best support them and specifically look for issues at the grassroot level, rather than waiting for harm to occur and be reported.
Addressing cultural facets as root-cause corrections — rather than work design or ISO 45003, which will not address root-case psychosocial hazards — also promotes physical and mental health, creativity, innovation, learning and development, as well as desirable organisational traits such as lower safety incidents (physical and psychological), lower quality defects, lower turnover, decreased revenue loss and optimised business operations. Organisations that address problems within their culture will reap the benefits.
Systems are important and can be very useful. However, they are only a complementary support system to the most important requirement for employee mental health and an overall healthy workplace — the culture. The system will only map out a structured pathway for an organisation to follow. It is the culture that will ultimately get it there.
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