Legal Insights

What are psychosocial hazards at work and what do employers need to do to manage them?

By Catherine Dunlop, Bruce Heddle

• 07 December 2022 • 6 min read
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The landscape of legislation and ‘best practice’ in how employers handle psychosocial hazards and risks is something we expect will evolve over the next few years.

However, right now employers should be looking critically at managing hazards and risks in their business by:

  • considering job design;
  • considering systems of work;
  • considering how work is supervised and managed;
  • considering workload, hours of work and performance targets;
  • considering the workplace environment including facilities in place to ensure and promote the welfare of workers;
  • conducting risk assessments;
  • creating or developing a risk register for psychosocial hazards;
  • conducting proactive training for managers and employees on identifying psychological hazards;
  • considering personal interactions and culture in a workplace;
  • considering any required changes to workplace policies and procedures; and
  • considering reporting mechanisms for psychological hazards or illness, including what data about mental health is provided to officers or Boards to critically assess the resources and processes in place for managing psychosocial hazards in the workplace.

Psychosocial health and the regulations (having a measured approach)

In 2018, the Boland Report recommended that the Model Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act be amended to include specific provisions about:

  1. How to identify psychosocial risks associated with psychological injuries; and
  2. The appropriate control measures that must be implemented to manage those risks.

Four years on, New South Wales was the first state to amend its WHS laws on 1 October 2022 to introduce a positive duty for a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) to manage psychosocial risks in the workplace. Queensland has taken a similar approach with amendments to its WHS laws about managing psychosocial risks to commence on 1 April 2023. Western Australia has introduced a non-mandatory code of practice.

While yet to be drafted, proposed changes in Victoria are likely to go much further than in NSW and Queensland, with a requirement to have a range of psychosocial prevention plans in place for certain hazards and a requirement to report certain psychosocial complaints (bullying, sexual harassment and exposure to occupational violence) received to WorkSafe Victoria twice yearly. The Health and Work Safety Authorities (representing the heads of Australian safety regulators) are currently working on a reporting scheme for the jurisdictions (all except Victoria) who have adopted the model WHS laws.

These changes highlight the need to have a proactive rather than a reactive approach to managing psychosocial risks before they arise.

What is a psychosocial hazard?

A psychosocial hazard is one that arises from the design, management, environment, plant or interactions at work, that may increase the risk of work-related stress which can then lead to psychological or physical harm.A psychoso cial risk is a risk to the health or safety of a person from a psychosocial hazard.

What are some common psychosocial hazards in the workplace?

Common psychological hazards include:

  • bullying
  • sexual harassment
  • exposure to occupational violence or aggression
  • role overload (high workloads or job demands) or role underload (low workloads or job demands)
  • fatigue
  • exposure to traumatic events, including exposure to extreme risks to health and safety, natural disasters or supporting victims of traumatic events;
  • role conflict or lack of role clarity (uncertainty, frequent changes, ambiguous responsibilities and expectations)
  • low job control (what work is completed, where and when work is competed)
  • conflict or poor workplace relationships
  • poor support from supervisors and managers (lack of practical assistance, emotional support, training, tools or resources)
  • inadequate reward and recognition, such as limited positive feedback ,or an imbalance between effort and recognition
  • hazardous physical working environments
  • remote or isolated work
  • poor processes for making decisions or responding to complaints and/or poor organisational justice, and
  • poor organisational change management, such as insufficient consultation or failure to identify new hazards and implement change.

These hazards can accumulate and interact, compounding the risk of harm, for example, if there is bullying and poor organisational justice or if workers who are exposed to traumatic content are working extremely long hours (where the latter can increase the risk of harm arising from vicarious trauma).

What does the law require?

The law requires employers to take a proactive approach to implementing control measures to eliminate, or minimise (if elimination isn’t reasonably practicable), psychosocial risks so far as is reasonably practicable.

The law does not require employers to take on the role of a psychologist – rather, it requires a consideration of the reasonable measures that can be taken to identify risk and implement effective control measures.

What should employers be doing to ensure compliance?

We identified in the opening of this article those items employers should be looking critically at.

However, employers should be mindful that in Queensland, and likely in Victoria there is a new hierarchy of control for addressing psychosocial hazards. Reliance on training, instruction and EAP will not be sufficient unless the employer has first consulted with workers and considered job design and adjustments to work and work systems to eliminate risk.

This will likely require employers to do more than they may currently be doing to consider these hazards, with the Victorian regulatory impact statement for the draft regulations estimating costs of many thousands for employers in the first year of implementation.

The regulators

Indicators from all relevant regulators are that they will initially be taking an educative and capacity building approach to assist organisations with compliance. There is useful material available on the respective regulators’ websites and on the Safe Work Australia website. Organisations should monitor this material as it will be very useful in informing preventative strategies.

What's next?

In 2023, we will keep you updated and assist you to navigate through the legislative changes to ensure that you are well placed, not only from a compliance perspective, but also in building and maintaining mentally healthy workplaces.

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

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