Managing Psychosocial Hazards in the Workplace

Managing Psychosocial Hazards in the Workplace

High Profile Infringements

In October 2023 the Sydney Morning Herald ran a news story around the staff exodus from a major Sydney hospital amid ‘toxic’ bullying claims. SafeWork NSW investigated and issued a series of penalty notices for “failing to manage the impact of work-related psychosocial stressors on staff”.

Across the city, a few weeks later at a large construction site involving multiple contractors, SafeWork also issued Provisional Improvement Notices on a large contractor for failing to manage psychosocial risks to its workers. The contractor reached out to BWC Safety to conduct an independent investigation. After interviewing dozens of workers and managers one thing was clearly evident – the whole concept of psychosocial hazards was poorly understood by the managers and supervisors.

Sadly, these are fairly typical outcomes for organisations that have concentrated on what they perceive to be their core business and have ignored their legal obligations to manage psychosocial risks to workers. As leading WHS consultants we note that these issues are becoming more prevalent and a focal point for the safety regulator in each state.

So what are Psychosocial Hazards?

Psychosocial hazards refer to elements, conditions, and interactions in the workplace that have the potential to harm the mental, emotional, or social well-being of workers. They pertain to the organisational and interpersonal aspects of work and their potential to cause psychological or social harm.

The causes of psychosocial harm have become better understood in the last few years and there is now a NSW Government Code of Practice to guide employers – “Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work” . This is an excellent resource and every workplace leader should take the time to download and read it.

Many organisations are unaware of the range of psychosocial hazards that can exist in the workplace. While most leaders understand that bullying and harassment must be dealt with quickly, they fail to identify other warning signs.

Here is a list of common psychosocial hazards that should be on management’s radar:

Job content and demands: This includes issues like work overload, work underload, uncertain or unpredictable work hours, and a lack of control or decision-making power. While workers can normally cope with the occasional issue, prolonged stress from these sources will certainly lead to long term problems.

Lack of role clarity: Ambiguity about one’s role, conflicting job roles, and responsibility without authority can lead to stress and other negative psychological outcomes.

Poor workplace relationships: This can involve poor communication, poor leadership and management practices, bullying, harassment of any kind, and social isolation. These are often the most frequent and toxic types of psychosocial hazard.

Organisational structure and climate: A lack of participation in decision-making, lack of clarity around organizational objectives, and perceived inequality can all be sources of stress.

Poor job security and uncertainty: Lack of opportunity for growth, job insecurity, and unclear expectations can lead to a sense of stagnation and insecurity.

Sustained poor work-life balance: When work consistently interferes with personal life or vice-versa, it can lead to burnout and other negative outcomes.

Remote or isolated work: Workers who are separated from colleagues or support structures may experience feelings of isolation and vulnerability.

Organisational change: Inconsistent or poorly managed change can lead to uncertainty and anxiety.

Exposure to violence or traumatic events: Some professions, like first responders, are more exposed to traumatic events which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.

The implications of these hazards can be far-reaching, affecting worker health, absenteeism, turnover, productivity, and even leading to more severe outcomes like burnout or mental health disorders. Recognizing and addressing psychosocial hazards is crucial for creating a healthy and productive work environment.

How do we manage these issues?

This is the most common question we receive. The answer is to apply the four-step Risk Management Model that most safety professionals would recognise to the area of Psychosocial hazards.

However, a common issue is that Step One “identify the hazards” often doesn’t begin until an issue escalates to the point that there is a significant problem. At this stage harm has already occurred, emotions run high

and there is usually a lot of disruption to the normal workflow. To avoid this, management must demonstrate their commitment and be proactive in seeking regular feedback from the workforce. Regular consultation with workers and their OHS Committee members is a great way to start.

I think we have a problem – what should we do?

If you suspect that your workers may be affected by psychosocial hazards then it is management’s responsibility to either eliminate the risks or minimise their effects so far as is reasonably practicable. This can be a daunting task for businesses with little experience in this area.

One of the recommendations in the Code of Practice is to engage the services of an external consultant. Typically, the approach they will adopt is to hold confidential discussions with staff so that responses cannot be traced back to any individual, yet key themes can be identified and solutions planned. It has the benefit of allowing the workers to be heard and express their point of view and this goes some way towards minimising the harm.

Consultation is the key

Once the key issues have been identified, it is essential to begin genuine consultation with workers and their representatives around the best solutions. Forming a WHS committee, if one doesn’t exist, should be high on management’s agenda. There is often a range of psychosocial risks present and the committee can collectively set priorities for the actions that are required and then monitor progress.

Seek help if you lack experience

Dealing with psychosocial hazards can be challenging, especially for managers and supervisors who are good at their trade but lack the experience to investigate the issues and consultatively work through solutions. A botched attempt can cause more distrust and harm. We would strongly recommend seeking assistance from an independent safety consultant with a demonstrated track record in investigating and facilitating the management of psychosocial risks.

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