You will have no doubt been hearing a lot about “psychological safety” and “psychosocial safety” lately and for good reason. The laws are changing in these areas in relation to workplace obligations. It can be confusing, but it shouldn’t be. It’s important to not over-complicate this topic because it is a very critical factor to get right in the workplace.
You will hear both terms (psychological/psychosocial) used interchangeably. This is Ok. It essentially means the same thing in relation to discussions around workplace safety, and often people use “psychological” because it is more familiar.
This framework describes the elements related to psychosocial safety in the workplace and how they interact:
In this blog, we define the meanings and requirements of psychosocial safety in simple terms and leave you with some straightforward actions to consider implementing in the workplace to comply with your obligations.
Psychosocial Hazards: A psychosocial hazard is anything that could cause psychological harm (e.g. harm someone’s mental health) [SafeWork Australia].
Psychological injury: A term used to describe an illness or disorder diagnosed by a medical practitioner which includes a range of recognized cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioural symptoms. They are also known as mental health conditions or disorders. Some examples are depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.
Psychosocial Safety (or psychologically safe): A workplace environment that enables people to feel safe, valued, and supported (a respectful and trusting culture) with minimal exposure to psychosocial and physical hazards.
Psychosocial Health and Safety: The systems and workplace factors that enable a person to work in an environment that is safe and free from harm from psychosocial hazards. It’s how psychosocial hazards are managed and controlled.
Psychosocial hazards can cause harm to people because they cause unreasonable stress. Unreasonable stress is that which is frequent, high, and or happens over a long period of time. This type of stress leads to psychological/mental health injuries or illnesses such as we described earlier.
The NSW Regulation defines psychosocial hazards as a hazard that arises from, or is related to:
- The design or management of work;
- A work environment;
- Plant at a workplace;
- Workplace interactions or behaviours; and
- That may cause psychological harm.
The most important thing to understand is WHAT can cause harm, by understanding what the hazards are, management can immediately work on identifying them, assessing the risk, and applying the hierarchy of controls to minimise harm, starting with the best way – elimination.
SafeWork Australia describes common psychosocial hazards in the workplace as being:
- job demands
- low job control
- poor support
- lack of role clarity
- poor organisational change management
- inadequate reward and recognition
- poor organisational justice
- traumatic events or material
- remote or isolated work
- poor physical environment
- violence and aggression
- harassment, including sexual harassment, and
- conflict or poor workplace relationships and interactions
(source: SafeWork Australia, 27.3.23, SWA)
What are my legal requirements?
In Australia, there were changes made to the Model WHS Regulations in 2022. In relation to psychosocial safety, the change included defining psychosocial hazards and psychosocial risks, and clarifying the control measures a business must implement. It imposes a positive obligation on employers to manage and protect against the risk of psychosocial hazards at work.
NSW was the first state to adopt these new changes (October 2022), and it is anticipated over time, other states will follow.
Victoria, which is not harmonised with the other states to these WHS laws, has also amended its WHS regulation to include the positive duty for employers to manage psychosocial hazards, in line with the Model Regulations.
When a state adopts the amendment (like NSW has done), it means that if there are breaches in relation to that amendment detail/section, penalties can be imposed on both the business (PCBU) and its officers (for breaching due diligence requirements).
Psychological health is already included in the model WHS Act (2011) in the definition of “health” in section 4, so regardless of whether the state you are in has adopted the amendment or code of practice, you already have a duty of care to ensure the health and safety of your employees associated with both physical and psychological hazards.
Workers’ compensation claims can be made for work-related psychological injuries in any jurisdiction (state/territory) and this has been the case for a long time. It, therefore, makes sense to consider the amendments as being adopted and be proactive when it comes to implementing the psychosocial safety guidelines.
What do I need to do?
Use the same principles that a business would use for managing any other hazards, the systematic four step approach used in the Code of Practice “How to manage work health and safety risks” is referred to in the Model Code of Practice for Managing psychosocial hazards. The four steps are:
- Identify hazards
- Assess risks
- Control risks
- Review control measures.
Throughout all steps, the organisation must be consulting with its workers.
For psychosocial hazards, the NSW Regulation directs a PCBU to:
- Identify reasonably foreseeable psychosocial hazards that could give rise to health and safety risks and;
- introduce, maintain and review control measures to eliminate (or minimise) psychosocial risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable.
In determining what control measures to implement, a person must have regard to all relevant matters, including:
- the level of exposure of workers and others to the psychosocial hazards;
- how the psychosocial hazards may interact or combine;
- the design and systems of work, including job demands and management of work;
- the design and layout, and environmental conditions, of the workplace;
- workplace interactions or behaviours; and
- the information, training, instruction and supervision provided to workers.
We suggest working through a risk assessment process, in consultation with your workers, any representatives, your HR team, and any other health and safety specialists you may require, to formally assess any psychosocial hazards that may be present or may have been reported.
WorkSafe QLD has a good Psychosocial Risk Assessment Tool available to use: WorkSafeQLD
You will want to be very open to all types of responses, with workers feeling they can be honest and express any concerns without risk of repercussion. This is essential if the organisation wishes to get realistic information to use for improvements.
While psychosocial safety management should be approached as per usual in terms of risk management (the 4 step approach above), the nature of psychological hazards and potential injuries means that the approach should be managed carefully.
Discussing potentially upsetting or stressful issues or situations may raise some strong emotions in people. Management should consider their wording and actions to ensure no harm or aggravation may occur from discussing sensitive issues.
For example, where there may be a worker with a pre-existing psychological condition, it may be appropriate to ask them in private whether they are comfortable with joining in on a risk assessment about psychological hazards. They may have some excellent insight, so they should not be excluded, but if they wish to not participate, this should be acknowledged. That is just one example, but the message is to be aware of others and act considerately.
There is work to do for every business when it comes to identifying and managing psychosocial hazards. Some businesses may find they do a risk assessment, and no hazards are identified. This is great, but regular reviews are necessary in case things change.
Other businesses may already know there are multiple hazards that exist and should be thinking about control measures and moving to address these ASAP.
The take-away message is that every single business is required to now consider psychosocial hazards as well as physical hazards and manage them accordingly to reduce the risk of injury at work.
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The information provided in these blog articles is general in nature and is not intended to substitute for professional advice. If you are unsure about how this information applies to your specific situation we recommend you contact Employment Innovations for advice.