Psychological welfare is a health and safety issue

Employers have a legal responsibility to manage psychosocial hazards, says Dr Carlo Caponecchia.

When managers at one workplace offered staff the opportunity to have a massage at work, the stress levels of employees increased, according to Dr Carlo Caponecchia, an expert in psychosocial workplace safety and a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales.

“Staff became so tense … because they had to finish all their work quickly before going to get massaged and then come back to finish the work they weren’t able do before they got their lovely massage,” Dr Caponecchia told delegates who attended a recent NSWNMA professional day.

If they aren’t well implemented, wellness and resilience programs can backfire, says Dr Caponecchia. He gave another example of workplaces that encourage employees to bike to work and then don’t provide showers or spaces to park bikes. Even more importantly, he said, wellness programs are too often used to ‘tick a box’ when they should just be one small part of an organisation’s psychological health and safety plan.

“Preventing psychological injury in the first place should be the main focus of a workplace,” says Dr Caponecchia. “Organisations have a responsibility to make sure that what they are doing in their organisation, and their work systems, don’t cause harm.”

Psychosocial workplace hazards can include any aspect of work, including job content, work organisation, reporting relationships and environmental and organisational conditions that have the potential to cause psychological harm. And employers have a legal responsibility to manage them just like any other workplace health and safety issue, says Dr Caponecchia.

“Managing psychosocial hazards is part of workplace health and safety duties. The Workplace Health and Safety act now explicitly includes psychological health, but it was always there implicitly.”

Employers need to apply a basic risk management model to psychosocial hazards, which means controlling hazards at the source, being preventative, and not focusing on interventions that are about individuals, Dr Caponecchia says.

“The assumptions of risk management are that we are being proactive and preventative. We are not sitting around waiting for things to go wrong. We’re predicting them and we’re acting before people are harmed.”

“Rather than just telling people how to get some help with how they are feeling … redesign what is going on in the workplace that is making them feel that way.”

Focus on fixing the workplace

Instead of telling people how to get better or how to deal with workplace issues better, employers should instead focus on fixing the workplace. Too often, however, employers are putting the responsibility back onto employees, Dr Caponecchia says.

“We’d never accept these kinds of individualistic strategies in other kinds of hazards. Where someone works in a noisy work environment, can you imagine ever telling them to just get better and deal with the noise? At the very least we’d give them some hearing protection. And that would be at the very bottom of controls. What should happen is trying to reduce that noise, trying to use a different machine that makes less noise and trying to isolate that person from the noise.”

Often mental health issues and psychosocial hazards are being dealt with under human resources, but they need to be dealt with in workplace health and safety systems, he said. “All the frameworks and the guidance for managing psychosocial hazards are all pointing in that direction.”

Psychosocial factors also contribute to other types of injury, most notably musculoskeletal disorders and manual handling issues, according to Dr Caponecchia. “They are absolutely fundamental to workplace health and safety. They should be one of the first things we should talk about when we are thinking about work and when we are thinking about safety.”

He advises employees to ask questions about whether their workplace treats psychosocial safety as a health and safety issue. “When you go to the safety meeting, asking whether psychosocial issues are included is a very practical first step.”

The language used is important too. Dr Caponecchia recommends avoiding using terms such as ‘complaints’ and ‘grievances’, which make something sound like a personal issue, and instead use the word ‘reports’. “When people are experiencing an issue that is of a psychosocial nature they should be making a ‘report’, not a complaint and not a grievance. ‘Report’ is the language of safety.”

Dealing with psychosocial risks does not have to mean completely overhauling a workplace. “When people hear ‘work’ design they think they need to knock the system down and start again, but it is about making small, manageable changes, talking to people and being collaborative about how work can change. Who could report to who differently? How can the workflow change? It can be about making small changes that make big differences.”

Resources on psychological health and work

Safe Work Australia has issued a guide called Work-related psychological health and safety: A systematic approach to meeting your duties. Issued by Safe Work Australia in 2019.

A new international standard on Safety Management Systems has been adopted in Australia AS/NZS ISO45001. It explicitly says that organisations now have to include how work is organised as part of their safety management. This can include identifying factors such as workload, work hours, victimisation, harassment and bullying, leadership and the culture of the organisation.