As part of a new Code of Practice, employers will have a stronger obligation to manage employees’ psychosocial safety at work.
Australian laws require employers to do everything they reasonably can to prevent harm arising from work. Supporting these laws are Codes of Practice which give guidance on how specific risks can be managed. Until recently, and in most States and Territories, this guidance has been limited to the physical risks of harm at work, such as working in confined spaces or managing electrical risks.
Effective from 1 April 2023, a new Code of Practice on managing ‘psychosocial hazards’ has been implemented across Australia. The Code has been published by Safe Work Australia, and the states and territories will likely implement it in each of their jurisdictions over the coming months.
‘Psychosocial hazards’ refer to aspects of work design, the work itself and the interactions between employees which can impact their mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Put another way, psychosocial hazards are the things at work which create stress and reduce our abilities to cope. Under stress, we release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Over a sustained period, this will degrade our immune systems, leading to physical and mental illnesses arising or being exacerbated.
What’s in the Code?
The Code should be closely read by both HR and those with WHS responsibilities since it gives detailed advice on how employers can design work and provide interventions and support to reduce and manage work stress.
The Code is detailed and written technically and with reference to core legal obligations under safety laws. Helpfully, it identifies the separate components of work which contribute to stress. These include:
- High job demands/low job control
- Poor organisational change management
- Inadequate reward and recognition
- Traumatic events or material
- Remote or isolated work
The Code notes that some workers may be at higher risk due to age, literacy or their previous exposure.
“Psychosocial hazards refer to aspects of work design, the work itself and the interactions between employees which can impact their mental health and emotional wellbeing.”
Key to an improved and systematic approach to managing stress and its adverse impacts is for HR to understand the lived experience and concerns of the workforce.
Too often, a reactive or intervention-based approach is taken, which is usually too late when those impacted are already burned out or actively looking for a new job. That approach is also reliant on people raising what can be the most uncomfortable topics – workplace culture, job demands and unspoken expectations in a workplace. These important topics are usually left unsaid.
However, another approach is to utilise the government’s ‘People at Work’ tool. This survey tool has been designed to assist employers to meet their safety obligations and aligns with the new Code of Practice.
After employees are surveyed (anonymously), a report is then generated and sent to the contact who initiated the survey. Surveys can be initiated periodically as a way of checking in with how implemented measures are working as intended.
Stepping outside of the detailed guidance of the Code, many employers meet their legal safety obligations by implementing these steps:
- Promoting wellbeing and good mental health, so stigma is reduced and employees feel supported to raise issues of concern or disclose mental illness concerns.
- Providing an employee assistance program (EAP), so that those who may not be able to freely disclose mental health concerns can still be supported to get assistance.
- Encouraging managers and supervisors to use EAP if team members are symptomatic or there are concerns about someone acting more withdrawn or ‘flatter’ than usual.
- Providing support, guidance and proactive resolutions in the event that issues are raised or observed in relation to workload, isolation or interpersonal conflict.
Safety regulators are increasingly willing to investigate the root causes of safety incidents and fatalities when there are allegations or concerns about stress, worker isolation or interpersonal conflict.
Extent of compliance
In the event of a serious incident (e.g a suicide which may have arisen from work stress), safety regulators will assess the extent of compliance by an employer against the Code.
If an employer has implemented key aspects of the Code, then that will be a very good demonstration that it has met its safety obligations owed to employees. In extreme cases, failure to implement the guidance provided by the Code may result in a prosecution under safety laws, with the potential for very large fines and potentially imprisonment for senior staff.
These new developments and resources make employee expectations of psychologically safe workplaces a concrete reality. This is a key compliance risk and responsibility for HR to manage in 2023.
Will Snow is an Employment and Safety Partner at Finlaysons.
Want to learn more about managing workplace risks to psychological health? Sign up for AHRI’s webinar on 3rd May.