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Managing psychosocial hazards in the workplace

April 24, 2024

 

 

There’s a new term in the lexicon of mental health that’s currently attracting a lot of attention. ‘Psychosocial’ refers to the combined influence of individual psychological factors and social environment — an influence which determines how ‘psychologically healthy’ a situation is. The term has become popular in the workplace, with ‘psychosocial hazards’ referring to dangerous mixes between individuals and workplace groups. Officially, according to WHS (Work Health Safety) regulations, the term describes;

“a hazard that arises from, or relates to, the design or management of work, a work environment, plant at a workplace, or workplace interactions and behaviours and may cause psychological harm, whether or not the hazard may also cause physical harm.”

In Queensland, Australia, psychosocial hazards are covered by the Code of Practice 2022, an approved update under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. This specific code is an amendment to the Safety Act, which defines physical emergencies, how to respond to health and safety concerns or incidents, and what unsafe practices look like. The Act treats psychosocial risks and hazards in much the same way, seeing certain incidents as potentially hazardous to an individual’s health.

We covered more about this in our blog on workplace bullying, which you can see more about here. But for this particular discussion, we’re going to look at the Safety Act itself.

The Act concerns a number of groups from HSE Australia and Safe Work Australia to individual companies which have to report on their health and safety training and representation. Safe Work Australia in particular oversees the implementation of national policy regarding WHS. 

 

What is a representative?

HSRs (Health & Safety Representatives) are people who are elected to represent the health and safety interests of workers under an organisation or company. In certain industries, this training will cover physical first aid, including orientation and ongoing health and safety procedures. 

The document released by WHSQ (Work Health & Safety Queensland) goes into further detail on this subject, but in a nutshell, psychosocial hazards are the responsibility of the PCBU (Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking). They are legally responsible for maintaining a mentally healthy workplace or environment and providing the proper resources, training, instruction, and monitoring of workplace situations.

 

Legal responsibilities

The increase in awareness around legal responsibility has led to an increase in the number of companies, in recent years, doing their best to promote ‘team culture’. However, while there is legislation around ensuring proper breaks, the WHSQ is more specifically concerned with ensuring the health and safety of its workers from acts by third-party members. This includes, in the case of customer-facing roles, providing procedures for helping employees deal with potentially threatening or psychologically challenging confrontations to ensure they feel safe. It also includes ensuring that team members don’t feel threatened by other members, including senior managers. 

 

Individual responsibilities

However, the WHSQ regulations aren’t all one-sided. Workers also have a duty of care to themselves to take care of their health and safety and take reasonable steps to ensure that their decisions do not adversely affect the health of others. If they are concerned, they are responsible for notifying a supervisor of a potential psychosocial hazard. However, workers are required to be briefed on health and safety policies, including those that affect mental health.

 

Managing psychosocial risks and hazards

Unfortunately, psychosocial hazards are not as easy to spot as potential trip hazards or dangerous electrical faults. A lot of regulations, while precise in intent, can fall down when it comes to interpretation. What some may regard as ‘light jibbing’ or ‘constructive criticism’ can be misinterpreted as a direct attack on mental well-being. Mental health involves a very large grey area between out-and-out bullying and potential neglect, manipulation or misuse of power.

What is clear from the Act is that PCUBs must ‘identify reasonably foreseeable psychosocial hazards’. In practice, this means avoiding work situations where employees face sustained and avoidable levels of mental or emotional stress, including burnout. It also means structuring the work environment in order to give some control to employees around their work and ensure that they have clarity and the ability to complete tasks with reasonable support.

At the extreme end, violence, aggression and bullying need to be reported and acted upon where they infringe on the mental and physical well-being of employees. This includes responding to traumatic events that may indispose a person from completing their task, either through shock or feeling uncomfortable in their work environment. 

 

Enabling support

Where possible, a system should be in place for employees to report incidents regarding psychosocial hazards without the fear of repercussion. A Health & Safety Representative or PCBU may be called to investigate or consult with employees individually. This person is seen to have a duty of care when it comes to individual confrontation and should treat information shared in confidence and with respect. 

Individuals may choose not to divulge information, particularly of a personal nature — however, that is up to the relationship between the investigative party and the employee. The investigator is responsible for ensuring that employees are given the chance to express their views and share information, with the expectation that, within reason, actions will be taken to promote a better outcome, particularly when the threat of the situation demands it.

HSRs are not restricted to any one individual, and responsibilities can be shared between two or more parties.

Supporting your employees

Mental health is a tricky situation that involves a lot of case-by-case thinking. For more information on the Act itself, including specific examples of psychosocial hazards, you can view and download a copy of the Act here.

If you’re looking at how you can better comply with the Act and ensure that HSR or other responsible parties are able to investigate and report on psychosocial hazards, then you may look at a Standard Mental Health First Aid course. Accredited by Mental Health First Aid Australia, ‘Your’ First Aid Trainer provides courses that focus on how to recognise and approach psychosocial hazards in the workplace. These courses can help implement a better Health & Safety plan for your company that includes mental health awareness policies. 

For more information, check out our website or get in touch with us at info@yourfirstaidtrainer.co.au.

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