Legal Insights

Best practice design in mental health practices in the workplace

By Catherine Dunlop, Bruce Heddle

• 07 December 2022 • 8 min read
  • Share

Employers need to take a more proactive and preventative approach to mental health in the workplace. In practice, these ‘best practices’ for assessing risks and implementing effective control measures include:

  1. consultation with employees on work health and safety matters that directly affect them
  2. considered work design
  3. monitoring and review of risks
  4. reporting mechanisms and responding to complaints
  5. training on how best to manage mental health and stressors in the workplace
  6. implementing flexible policies that outline acceptable behaviours and the procedures for managing psychosocial hazards.

We outline more detail below.

Psychosocial risks in the workplace

It is estimated that poor mental health costs the Australian economy $70 billion a year.[1] In the work context, mental stress is having an increasingly significant impact on productivity. According to SafeWork Australia[2], the average time organisations lose to various employee mental health conditions has increased dramatically since 2015, from 18.8 working weeks to 30.7 working weeks in 2022. Between 2020 to 2021 alone, there were 12,155 workers compensation claims arising as a result of mental stress with just over a third of those claims relating to anxiety or stress-related disorders. Given the prevalence of these claims, it is crucial for organisations to place a larger focus on proactive risk management of psychosocial hazards. This is especially important with the recent amendments to the work health and safety laws (WHS) in New South Wales and Queensland (the Queensland amendments will commence on 1 April 2023) requiring a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) to identify and eliminate or minimise (if elimination isn’t reasonably practicable) psychosocial risks in the workplace. Similar legislative amendments are likely to be made in Victoria sometime in 2023.

To proactively manage mental health in the workplace, it is no longer enough to simply provide ‘wellness’ programs in the form of gym memberships, yoga classes or access to Employee Assistance Programs. The current and proposed reforms to WHS laws require risk management to effectively identify and control psychosocial hazards in the workplace.

To assist organisations in taking a more proactive and preventative approach to mental health in the workplace, we discuss some ‘best practice’ tips for assessing risks and implementing effective control measures to minimise the risk of mental health related workers’ compensation claims and poor psychological health in the workplace.

Tip 1: Consultation with employees

Under WHS laws, organisations have a duty to consult their workers on work health and safety matters that will directly affect them. In July 2022, Safe Work Australia published its model code of practice detailing what psychosocial hazards may exist in the workplace and how to best manage them. Hazards such as poor job support, high job demands, or interpersonal conflicts in the workplace can lead to mental stress, time off work and workers compensation claims if not addressed. By proactively consulting with employees about these psychosocial hazards and ways of controlling the risks, organisations can make more informed decisions about the psychological safety of their employees. Surveys about culture are one tool (with some limitations) that can be used, but other more effective means of communication include targeted focus/discussion groups and anonymous reporting mechanisms, which assist organisations to identify risks or trends in psychological safety.

Tip 2: Consider work design

Recent amendments to the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 (NSW) and similar amendments in Queensland require PCBUs to consider workplace design as part of their duty to manage psychosocial risks in the workplace. This refers to looking at:

  • the way tasks or jobs are designed, organised, supervised and managed;
  • considering the inherent psychosocial hazards and risks in certain tasks or jobs (e.g. shift work, front line emergency services);
  • physical hazards which contribute to psychosocial risks; and
  • considering overall job design including management, governance and resourcing.

Rethinking job design may be a longer term process that can involve job crafting, and providing appropriate recognition and reward, tied to job meaning.[3] This can be difficult to do in a time of labour shortages, but may be part of workforce planning projects, linked to performance reviews and targets and developed as part of an organisational vision.

Tip 3: Monitor and review risks

Organisations have an obligation under safety legislation to monitor conditions in the workplace. In addition to information collected through consultation, managers and leaders should be considering changes in the risk profile in teams or work locations. For example, fatigue can be a risk to both physical health (especially if a worker is operating machinery) and a hazard which represents the potential for further physical or mental harm. Periods of organisational change may give rise to an increase in bullying behaviour. Remote work can create poor mental health if supports are not in place. Ensuring these risks are recorded in your risk register and requiring managers to regularly update risk assessments and consider what can be done to eliminate or minimise risks is important. This should happen whether or not workers report concerns.

Tip 4: Reporting mechanisms and responding to complaints

Having in place robust reporting mechanisms where employees have the opportunity to raise issues or concerns, including anonymously, about psychosocial hazards is also a critical part of creating a mentally healthy workplace. Examples of these mechanisms include a locked box for anonymous feedback, an independent hotline or allocating persons who can receive reports confidentially. It is important that employees are made aware that those who make reports will not be victimised, and that all reports will be taken seriously. Responding to complaints effectively and, where required, conducting an investigation into reports of bullying and harassment is also critical from a risk management perspective. Specific resources such as an Employee Assistance Program or a dedicated manager to assist employees with making a report and managing any hazards while the report is being investigated (for example, considering alternative working arrangements) are also important.

Tip 5: Training

Managers and employees should be provided with training on how to best manage mental health stressors in the workplace. It is crucial to have training at both levels to ensure that managers are adequately supporting their employees and that employees are aware of how to support themselves and their colleagues. Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) published its guidelines on mental health at work which provided six recommendations including the implementation of training for managers and workers. The WHO emphasised the importance of having periodic training on how to identify and respond to psychosocial hazards, what actions can be taken to respond to mental stressors as well as how best to support and communicate with those who are experiencing distress. This type of training can be delivered in a range of ways including through accredited mental health first-aid training, seminars and online modules. The law doesn’t require employees to be psychologists. Rather, the training should focus on how to identify psychosocial hazards and how to assist colleagues with mental health concerns (whether actual or suspected concerns about someone’s mental wellbeing).

Tip 6: Workplace policies and return to work programs

Policies dealing with the management of behavioural risks need to be flexible. These policies should outline acceptable behaviours in the workplace and what procedures are in place for managing psychosocial hazards. Examples of policies include those covering codes of conduct, bullying, work health and safety, anti-discrimination and harassment as well as grievance management and disciplinary procedures. In conjunction with these policies, organisations should also ensure they have clear, supportive and flexible return to work programs. In its recent guidelines, the WHO recommended that these programs consider the working conditions, hours, and tasks as well as making available work-directed, clinical care and psychological interventions to the employee.

Any return to work programs must consider what reasonable adjustments can be made to ensure the safety of any worker returning to the workplace following a period of psychological illness.

Looking to the future

Over the next year, we expect to see employers increasing their focus on workplace wellbeing and continuing to take a more proactive and mature approach to the management of mental health at work. This is especially so in light of the Respect@Work laws which place a greater onus on employers to maintain a healthy and safe workplace by placing positive duties on employers and prohibiting hostile, intimidating or offensive workplace environments.

[1] CEDA report ‘Mental Health and the Workplace’, November 2022.
[2] Safe Work Australia Key Work Health and Safety statistics 2022

Read more articles from the Employment, Safety & People, 2022 Year in Review

Recent articles

Online Access