Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) has a primary duty to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, both the physical and psychological health and safety of their workers.

Previously, the management of psychosocial risks has been unregulated Australian workplaces. However, with the rising frequency and costs of psychological injuries, and after multiple WHS legislation reviews, State and Territory Ministers have committed to introducing regulations across Australia to elevate psychological health and safety to the same level as physical health and safety.

These new regulations recognise that hazards that pose a risk to psychological health and safety (psychosocial hazards) are just as harmful to workers as physical hazards are. They will also provide clearer guidance to employers on their obligations to better protect workers from mental illness and injury.

In June 2022, SafeWork Australia amended the Model Work Health and Safety Regulations to include the management of psychosocial risks. Later in July, they released a Code of Practice on managing psychosocial hazards at work, which provides practical guidance on how to identify and manage psychosocial risks and achieve the standards required under the regulations. It is now up to the individual states and territories to adopt these changes into their WHS legislation.

On October 1, 2022, NSW became the first state to adopt new WHS regulations, which require businesses to implement control measures to manage psychosocial risks. Queensland have also announced their commitment to adopt the same regulations on 1 April 2023.

What will the new regulations mean for you?
As an employer you will be required to manage psychosocial hazards in your workplace, the same as you currently must do for physical hazards. To do this you will need to follow a systematic approach, in consultation with staff, to identify psychosocial hazards, assess and prioritise the risks, develop and implements control measures and regularly review the effectiveness of these controls.

Managing psychosocial hazards and risks at your workplace
The Safework Australia Work-related psychological health and safety National guidance material, 2019[3] identifies identify a systematic four-step process that, as an employer, you should take to manage psychosocial hazards in the workplace, the same as you would for any other health and safety risk. The four steps are:

1. IDENTIFY the psychosocial hazard
This involves identifying the aspects of work and situations that could potentially cause harm to people (examples listed above) and why these may be occurring.
This can be done by observing and talking to workers about work activities, and systematically collecting and reviewing available information and data, such as

  • workforce or culture surveys,
  • absenteeism, turnover, sick leave data and workers’ compensation claims,
  • incidents reports,
  • complaints and investigations into alleged harmful workplace behaviours,
  • staff skills and experience profiles,
  • analysis of work tasks, schedules, and locations, and
  • WHS and human resources systems, policies, and procedures.

2. ASSESS and prioritise the psychosocial hazards and risks
One you have identified what your hazards and risks are, the next step is to conduct a risk assessment. This will help you to determine the seriousness of the risks, who is most affected by them, what controls are currently being used, how effective they are, what controls could be used to reduce the risk(s) to the lowest practical level, and the priority for action.
SafeWork Australia says some common ways that this can be done include:

  • consulting with workers and their HSRs,
  • using information from focus groups, interviews, and de-identified surveys, and
  • reviewing your organisation’s records.

3. CONTROL psychosocial hazards and risks
Once you have identified and assessed your psychosocial hazards and risks, control measures need to be put in place to eliminate or minimize the risk as much as possible. Depending on what your workplace’s hazards and risks are, control measures can be implemented by way of:

  • Good work design, including specifying and organising jobs and tasks of workgroups or individual workers to be less hazardous,
  • Safe systems of work, including organisational rules, policies, procedures, and work practices that must be developed and followed, and
  • Information, training, instruction, or supervision.

4. Proactively implement, maintain, monitor and REVIEW the effectiveness of controls
Once any control measures have been implemented, clear accountabilities need to be allocated for regularly monitoring, maintaining, and reviewing their ongoing effectiveness. Some controls may not always remain suitable, sufficient, and effective over time.
There are several occasions when reviews should occur, including:

  • before significant organisational or workplace changes occur,
  • when a new hazard or risk is identified,
  • if a serious incident, injury, or illness occurs,
  • if the hazard changes
  • if the risk is not being adequately minimised, or
  • at agreed review dates.