Psychosocial safety: are you taking it seriously?

The psychological safety of employees should be taken seriously by all businesses.

The psychological safety of employees should be taken seriously by all businesses.

While psychosocial safety cannot be considered a new issue, there is little doubt it is the next wave of health and safety concern in Australia.

For those not familiar with the term, psychosocial safety refers to the prevention and management of work-related stressors that can impact an employee’s psychological health.

Research and recent reporting supports the notion that psychosocial safety is an increasingly critical factor for organisations to consider when promoting health and safety.

Yet despite this, we are still seeing organisations primarily investing in interventions to prevent physical incidents when in fact, by law, they also need to recognise the importance of attending to psychosocial hazards.

Australian health and safety legislation requires employers to take active steps to protect the physical and psychological health and safety of employees.

Evidence suggests that psychological injury is on the increase, at great cost to employers (Australian Psychological Society, 2015).

Organisations that do not place enough value on the wellbeing of workers are likely to be less efficient, less effective and less productive.

This is because poor health can result in higher levels of absenteeism, presenteeism (attending work while sick), turnover, lost productivity, poor morale, inability to cope with work demands, disengagement and low motivation.

As such, there is an increased need to protect the psychological health of employees through the identification and management of psychosocial hazards, not just from a health safety point of view, but also to support business productivity and success.

Psychosocial hazards include, but are not limited to; fatigue, violence and aggression, work-related stress, bullying, and remote and isolated work.

Hazards of this nature do not just result in the organisational and work-related impacts noted above.

These hazards can also have the potential to cause ill health, psychological injury, lost time injuries, and worker compensation claims.

While psychological injury claims make up a relatively small proportion of total compensation claims, the costs associated with psychological injury claims are much higher than for other claims, such as physical injury.

The costs for psychological injury are often higher because they tend to attract higher medical, legal and other costs, and the individual is usually off work for a longer period of time.

Consequently, it is important that organisations establish the nature of any psychosocial issues that may be present and determine how to best combat these issues to improve employee general well-being.

A risk management approach is recommended for identifying and managing psychosocial hazards and preventing psychological injury in the workplace.

In undertaking this process, the Safe Work Australia risk management framework for identifying and managing risk is recommended.

Below is an outline of the steps within this model applied to psychosocial hazard identification and management.

STEP 1: Identify sources of potential harm (e.g. role conflict, bullying, fatigue, lack of support) to employee health and wellbeing and consider whether employees are at risk of psychological injury.

This can be done using data obtained from:

  • Employee surveys;
  • Focus groups;
  • Interviews;
  • Workers compensation claims;
  • Absence statistics; and,
  • Employee turnover data.

STEP 2: Assess the risk of potential harm by analysing the information gathered in step 1 to understand the nature, extent, and causes of psychological injury in the workplace. During this step, identify priority areas for action.

STEP 3: Develop and implement an intervention plan to:

  • Address the source of stress or the workplace factors that pose a high risk of psychological injury;
  • Reduce the severity of the consequences of stress before they become too serious; and,
  • Implement safe and effective rehabilitation and return to work assistance as the last line of defence (tertiary intervention).

STEP 4: Ensure senior management support and employee buy-in for proposed control measures/interventions and implement the approved interventions in order of priority.

STEP 5: Having developed a plan to prevent, control, or minimise the risks and impact of psychosocial hazards on the psychological wellbeing of employees, it is essential to consider how the plan and associated activities will be monitored and reviewed against agreed targets and key performance indicators.

Some key actions to consider when addressing the risks to prevent or minimise psychological harm include:

  • Determine whether the risks identified can be addressed at the local level (preferable);
  • Involve relevant staff in discussions about how to address identified risks;
  • Learn from industry guidelines or experts who can advise on strategies that work;
  • Ensure that proposed actions are realistic and achievable;
  • Focus effort on a small number of higher priority issues first, focus on progress rather than endless planning;
  • Consider whether something can be done immediately on an issue while the broader solution is being determined;
  • Ensure that responsibilities, timelines and review dates are allocated; and,
  • Ensure that the action plan is endorsed at an appropriate management level so it can be implemented.

When monitoring and reviewing your action plan, consider the following:

  • Has progress is being made on agreed actions in a timely manner?
  • Have you addressed priority risks?
  • Are staff engaged and informed about progress;
  • Determine whether actions have been effective and whether different strategies are required;
  • Ensure improvements are sustainable and built into company systems;
  • Decide how learning can be shared with others who may confront the same issues; and,
  • Assess whether new or emerging risks need to be addressed.

In conclusion, it is vital that organisations identify, assess and manage psychosocial hazards using a risk management approach.

By identifying and assessing the psychosocial hazards, suitable interventions can be put in place, not only to mitigate psychological risks, but to also enhance employee health, wellbeing and organisational performance.

It makes sense from a business perspective to ensure employees are working within an environment that allows them to be productive, efficient, and work to their full potential.

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