Managing Psychosocial Risks in the Workplace

Psychosocial risk factors

Understanding and effectively managing psychosocial risks in the workplace is not just a moral obligation – it’s a legal one. In Australia, employers owe a range of duties to prevent psychological injury and harm to their employees and other persons at the workplaces they control.

In this article, we aim to illuminate the psychosocial hazards that could be putting your workplace at risk, explain their impact, and, more importantly, offer you actionable advice on how to manage them for the health and safety of your staff.

You will notice that we use the words ‘hazards’ and ‘risks’. They sound like they mean the same thing but they don’t. In work health and safety law and practice, a ‘hazard’ is something that carries the possibility of causing harm whereas ‘risk’ refers to the degree of likelihood that harm (i.e. death, injury or illness) will be caused through exposure to a hazard. 

What are Psychosocial Hazards?

Psychosocial hazards encompass all aspects of a working environment that could potentially cause stress, psychological injuries, burnout or mental health issues. These hazards may arise from the design and management of work, as well as the social and organisational contexts of the workplace. Matters under this umbrella may include but are not limited to excessive workloads, isolating work conditions, poorly defined roles, a lack of support, and a hostile work environment, including bullying or even workplace violence.

Common Psychosocial Hazards in the Workplace

Understanding the common psychosocial hazards that may be present in your workplace is the first step to preventing psychological harm. Let’s take a closer look at some of the common types of psychological hazards: 

High Job Demands  

A workplace regularly featuring continuous excessive workload, accelerated pace, or never-ending tight deadlines can dramatically elevate stress levels, leading to chronic stress, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders and more among your team members. This can also be detrimental to the business itself, as stress frequently results in both excessive sick leave,, absenteeism and low productivity.

To maintain a healthy workplace and avoid psychological harm, balancing the job demands with achievable and realistic goals and deadlines that respect your employees’ capabilities is essential. 

Low Job Control  

When employees feel they have little control over their tasks, schedules or decisions, they often struggle with job dissatisfaction and recurring stress.

As a business owner, empower your workers by involving them in decision-making and granting them degrees of control measures over their job tasks. Doing so not only aids in easing workplace stress but also enhances job satisfaction. 

Poor Support  

Insufficient support from supervisors or fellow workers can trigger feelings of isolation and escalate stress levels in your employees.

To address this, you must promote a supportive, collaborative, and inclusive culture that caters to all employees. This fosters mutual respect, camaraderie in workspace dynamics, and ensures practical assistance is offered when needed. 

Lack of Role Clarity  

Workplaces with unclear job responsibilities and expectations or frequent changes to tasks can elicit a stress response from employees.

Providing clearly defined roles and a comprehensive understanding of responsibilities significantly minimises any chance of miscommunication within the workforce. Position descriptions may need periodic review in consultation with staff. 

Poor Organisational Change Management  

Organisational change, if not managed effectively, can lead to substantial worry and stress among your workforce. Changes such as restructuring, mergers or downsizing all require adequate preparation, effective communication, and smooth execution. Staff should be monitored for signs of stress and provided with available mental health supports. 

Inadequate Reward and Recognition  

A lack of recognition or rewards for your team’s hard work can leave them feeling unappreciated and undervalued. As a result, it may leave them to perform the bare minimum in ongoing work tasks with poor-quality deliverables.

Regular demonstration of appreciation alongside suitable rewards are essential to foster a positive work environment that contributes to higher job satisfaction and morale. 

Poor Organisational Justice  

When employees perceive unfairness in the workplace regarding decision-making, resource distribution, or grievance handling, they can feel disheartened and under-appreciated, and even pursue employment disputes.

Striving to maintain transparency, openness, fair practices, and equal opportunities are the pillars to achieve organisational justice. Well-drafted policies such as a code of conduct and grievance handling policy, can assist to support organisational justice. 

Traumatic Events or Material  

Exposure to distressing events or confronting materials at work can lead to stress or post-traumatic stress disorder. If it is unavoidable, offering emotional support during such times, such as counselling, mental health resources, leave, or rotation into less stressful roles can assist employees in coping with these situations. 

Remote or Isolated Work  

Through the nature of their work, remote or isolated workers regularly experience feelings of loneliness, which can lead to serious mental distress and increased perception of isolation. This can also be a problem for employees who exclusively or substantially work from home. 

Regular check-ins, virtual team-building exercises, and online social activities can bolster a sense of community within remote teams and mitigate risks to their physical and psychological health. 

Poor Physical Environment  

Workplaces plagued by poor lighting, cramped spaces, excessive noise, or a lack of basic amenities can heighten stress levels and impact productivity.

A clean, comfortable work environment promoting health and safety paves the way for maximum productivity and overall employee wellness. 

Work-Related Violence, Aggression, Bullying, and Harassment  

Instances of workplace abuse in any form — physical violence, verbal aggression, bullying, or harassment — can have a devastating impact on an individual’s mental health just as much as their physical health. Often the source of aggression is from customers or other members of the public. 

Address these issues as swiftly as possible. Implement zero-tolerance policies, appropriate reporting mechanisms, and supportive resources for affected individuals to maintain a respectful environment free of such harmful workplace behaviours. 

Conflict or Poor Workplace Relationships and Interactions  

Workplace conflicts or strained relationships among team members often foster a tense and unproductive work environment.

Encouraging open communication, facilitating teamwork, and providing conflict resolution training can foster healthier interactions and positive working relationships. 

Your Key Responsibilities as an Employer in Handling Psychosocial Risks

Let’s unpack the four-step risk management process outlined in the New South Wales Code of Practice for managing workplace psychosocial hazards. Understanding how you can incorporate these steps into your workplace is the first stride towards promoting psychosocial health and safety. 

Step One: Identify Psychosocial Hazards 

Your first duty is to recognise any psychosocial hazards that may endanger the mental health of your employees. This could be excessive workload, poor role clarity, lack of support, or even workplace harassment.

Remember, each workplace is different, and the potential for harmful behaviour may vary greatly from role to role, so it can be important to assess hazards associated with the different roles. 

Step Two: Assess and Psychosocial Risks 

The next move is to assess and prioritise the psychosocial risks posed by the psychosocial hazards.

  • How likely are the risks to occur?
  • What would be the severity of their impact?
  • Will certain actions or upcoming events increase risks?

Consult with and seek input from your staff in this step, as their personal insights on poor workplace relationships, psychological harm, job demands, and beyond will be invaluable. 

Step Three: Control the Risks 

With an overview of each psychosocial hazard present in your workplace, you can progress to actively manage the psychosocial risks by implementing control measures.

You can do this by introducing interventions and strategies tailored to your specific workplace context and any hazardous working environments. This might mean addressing heavy workloads, improving communication, offering resilience training or creating a more positive and inclusive culture. 

Step Four: Review Control Measures 

The final phase requires ongoing commitment. It is not enough to develop strategies and ‘set and forget’. You must ensure these are working as intended and adapt them as needed – an ongoing process of monitoring and refining. Your workplace isn’t static, and neither should your strategies be. 

As an employer, you must understand and integrate this process into your workplace practices to align your policies with the new regulations. This is not just about response; it’s about prevention.

By being proactive, you’re adhering to legal requirements and working towards a happier, healthier, and more productive team.

Key Takeaways

Every person has a role to play in managing psychosocial risks in the workplace.

As an Australian business owner, it’s not just about ‘ticking boxes’, delegating tasks or having meetings. These responsibilities revolve around your attitude and the supportive environment you foster for your team. 

  • Remember the human element: When going about your daily tasks, never lose sight of the fact that you’re dealing with people, not numbers or positions. Be understanding when staff are under pressure and take signs of stress seriously.
  • Break it Down: Large, looming projects can be a significant source of stress. Breaking these into manageable chunks and delegating responsibility with appropriate support shares the load and demonstrates trust in your team.
  • Productivity over Prolonged working hours: Long hours don’t necessarily mean more work gets done. Instead, encourage regular breaks and healthy boundaries between work and personal life. Overworked employees are not productive employees.
  • Managers as Role Models: The benefits of a well-managed workload and healthy work-life balance aren’t just for your staff. Managers and business owners need to place equal importance on psychosocial risks. Act as a positive role model, and be open and genuine in your interactions with your staff.
  • Communication is king: Good workplace communication goes beyond memos or emails. It means involving your team in decision-making, regularly checking in with them one-on-one, and creating an environment where they feel free to express their thoughts and concerns without worry.
  • Review and adapt: Remember, you’re probably not going to be able to remove all stress, but you can seek to manage it effectively. That means continually assessing and adjusting your strategies to meet your staff’s and your business’s changing needs.

Practising these skills and adopting this attitude benefits your team’s health and well-being and will ultimately contribute to a more successful, efficient, and healthy business.

Please feel welcome to reach out to WilliamsonBarwick if your organisation requires support in managing psychosocial hazards in the workplace.

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