If you don't know what a psychosocial hazard is, rest assured you are not alone.
Most businesses understand their safety obligations when it comes to physical health and safety but are much less certain when it comes to ensuring psychological health and safety. In short, the duty is the same, but with new safety law putting an emphasis on psychological health, it is now more important than ever that businesses get up to speed with the new safety jargon: “psychosocial hazards and risks”.
What is a psychosocial hazard?
This is a technical term to describe a very common group of hazards that can cause psychological harm. A psychosocial hazard arises from or relates to four features of every business:
- the way work is managed or designed
- the work environment
- the equipment
- workplace interactions and behaviours.
Psychosocial hazards are best understood by reference to examples, with the most common being:
- high or low workload
- working remotely
- sexual harassment
- low job control
- poor support from colleagues or supervisors
- role confusion
- low recognition
- workplace conflicts
- poor change management.
Each of these common psychosocial hazards capture a broad range of hazards, which may take different forms in each workplace. It is also possible that some of those examples may not impact your business at all. The list, however, should make you realise your business already has familiarity with at least some psychosocial hazards (and that you have likely already taken some steps to manage them).
How can psychosocial hazards impact my workers or clients?
Psychosocial hazards typically create stress which – if ignored or left unmanaged – can lead to psychological harm (and, in some cases, physical harm). That is why psychological harm is the key risk arising from psychosocial hazards for business.
It is important to emphasise that stress per se is not an injury or status that businesses need to eliminate. No workplace operates stress-free. It is impossible to create an entirely stress-free work environment because feeling stress is a natural human reaction!
The injuries that psychosocial hazards can cause include depression, anxiety, burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder and cardiovascular disorder.
Stress does play an important role, however, in identifying areas of risk: it is the signal to ask is everything ok with my workplace, the work environment, the way people are interreacting, etc. For example, its presence can indicate a worker perceives the demands of their work exceed their ability or resources to cope. Importantly, stress can be the precursor to psychological harm if exposure is frequent, prolonged or severe.
Why are psychosocial hazards suddenly a priority for business?
Since 2021, new safety regulations and/or codes of practice targeting the management of psychosocial hazards at work have gradually been introduced in New South Wales, Northern Territory, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia. Safe Work Australia has also identified “psychosocial hazards” as a priority issue in the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2023-2033.
There are three key messages that businesses need to take away from those developments:
- the obligation to ensure health and safety at work includes “psychological health”;
- the obligation to engage in psychosocial risk management is here to stay; and
- if your business has taken no steps in relation to psychosocial hazards – action is required.
What do businesses need to do?
Businesses need to ensure they are complying with their obligations under work health and safety legislation with respect to psychological health – that means rectifying any knowledge gap on the issue of psychosocial hazards (especially amongst senior leadership) and taking proactive steps to manage psychosocial hazards at work. This includes:
- taking steps to eliminate or minimise psychosocial risks (so far as is reasonably practicable) – this requires businesses to identify psychosocial hazards, assess the risks and implement and review control measures
- consulting with workers about psychosocial hazards and risks (i.e. include them in the safety conversation)
- providing information, training and instruction to workers about psychosocial hazards and risks – this includes your senior leadership who likely have due diligence obligations under work health and safety legislation
- consulting with other duty holders (where relevant to your business).
Businesses need to be able to show the safety regulator that they are satisfying their obligations when it comes to psychosocial risk management. Just like the management of the risks arising from physical hazards: proactive action is required.
If you require assistance in getting your business compliant with work health and safety law, get in touch on 1300 565 846 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.