Recent changes to work health and safety regulations will require employers to take a proactive approach to managing risks to employees’ mental health and wellbeing. The changing approach is reflected in the Model Work Health and Safety (WHS) regulations, which now require employers to use a risk-based approach to managing workplace psychosocial hazards, as they would manage other risks to the health and safety of workers. This requirement is progressively being incorporated into state and territory legislation. To support the changes, Safe Work Australia’s 2022 Model Code of Practice on Managing psychosocial hazards at work (model code) provides practical guidance to help organisations meet their WHS responsibilities.

What are psychosocial hazards

The term covers aspects of the work environment, design or interactions that may cause psychological or physical harm. Psychosocial hazards will be different in each workplace but can include issues such as escalating workload leading to long hours or missing breaks; repetitive work; pressure of financial targets; patient distress; inappropriate behaviours; isolation; interpersonal conflict; or bullying, harassment or discrimination. Risks can occur in combination, and ongoing low-level stresses may make a worker more vulnerable to harm from a single severe incident.

A need to rethink current approaches

Employers’ duty to protect workers’ psychological health and safety is not new and your workplace may already have policies and programs to support the mental wellbeing of workers in the workplace. However, the increasing cost and frequency of workplace psychological injuries suggests current approaches have failed to prevent psychological harm to workers. For example, between 2019 and 2022, the Medical Training Surveys consistently report around one third of respondents had experienced or witnessed bullying, harassment, discrimination or racism in the past 12 months. The person responsible in a number of these cases was another healthcare colleague. Even though most respondents said their organisation had relevant policies, most of the respondents to the survey were unwilling to report the incident.

Towards a risk management model

Critics suggest one problem with approaches to date is they assume workplace stress is ‘normal’ or unavoidable. Responses such as resilience initiatives imply the problem is with an individual’s ability to cope, rather than the work environment. Health and safety authorities and regulators now consider many psychosocial hazards arise from work design. They have the potential to harm all workers and should be managed using the same risk assessment approach as physical risks.

Focus on changes to workplace design

The new model code is clear that it will not be enough to simply rely on policies in response to the risks. These have a place as part of the response. However, they are the least reliable means of controlling risks and provide the lowest level of protection. They rely on people understanding and following them, and do not address the underlying causes. Now employers will also need to show the steps they took to change work design or alter the environment to remove or reduce psychosocial risks.

Creative problem-solving in your workplace

The message to employers and business owners is not to wait for workers to complain or become unwell. Instead, consult with workers to:
• Identify aspects of work and situations that could cause harm
• Assess the risk, likelihood and severity of potential harm
• Implement control measures to eliminate or minimise the risk of harm and
• Review the control measures and modify if necessary.

It is important to encourage all workers to be involved. However, everyone does not need to agree on the list of risks. Some may thrive under pressure or enjoy routine, while others may become burned out. Even if only some workers identify a risk, it should still be managed through the risk assessment process. As well as coming up with suggestions the process may itself help mitigate stress by reassuring workers that managers are aware of their concerns – provided some action is taken to address the issues after they are identified.