Last updated 15 May, 2023

Prioritising psychosocial safety: a guide to updated WHS regulations

Traditionally, workplace safety has been focused on physical hazards such as machinery, chemical exposure, and working conditions. But as we understand more about the importance of mental health, there is a growing recognition that psychosocial hazards can be just as damaging as physical ones.

A workplace that is not psychosocially safe can cause a range of issues for employees, including an increased risk of suicide, depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. Furthermore, it can have a negative impact on the business, including decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and higher staff turnover rates.


Workplace Health and Safety Amendment

To address this growing concern, an amendment was made to Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) standards (Division 11) in 2022. This amendment requires businesses to manage psychosocial risks in accordance with Part 3.1 of the WHS regulation, and to implement control measures to eliminate or minimise such risks. The control measures must take into account various factors, such as the duration, frequency, and severity of exposure to psychosocial hazards, the design of work and the workplace, and workplace interactions and behaviours.


What are psychosocial hazards?

Before we dive into the importance of a psychosocially safe workplace, it’s important to define what we mean by psychosocial hazards and risks.

A psychosocial hazard is any aspect of work design or the work environment that has the potential to cause psychological or physical harm. This can include factors such as workload, job control, work demands, interpersonal relationships, and organisational culture.

A psychosocial risk is the likelihood that a psychosocial hazard will cause harm to an individual’s mental or physical health. It’s important to note that not all psychosocial hazards will result in harm, and the degree of harm can vary depending on a range of factors, such as the individual’s susceptibility to stress and the duration and intensity of exposure to the hazard.


The Importance of a Psychosocially Safe Workplace

Creating a psychosocially safe workplace is essential for the mental health and wellbeing of employees. When employees feel supported and safe in their workplace, they are more likely to be engaged in their work, be innovative, and stay with the organisation long-term. In contrast, an unsafe or stressful work environment can lead to physical and mental health problems, absenteeism, and high staff turnover.

Moreover, businesses that prioritise psychosocial safety can also benefit from improved productivity, reduced absenteeism, and increased employee morale. By creating a safe and supportive work environment, businesses can foster positive employee relationships, build trust, and increase their reputation as an employer of choice.


How WHS Regulations are Enforced

Just as there are penalties and consequences for WHS violations that put employees’ physical safety at risk, the same rules will now apply for failure to maintain a psychosocially safe workplace. Non-compliance with the amended WHS regulations can result in the following:

  • Improvement Notices: An order by an inspector to improve an activity or workplace environment feature that is breaching WHS regulations. Generally, they will provide a reasonable period in which action must be taken, and they may specify what actions need to be taken.

  • Prohibition Notices: The purpose is to remove a serious, immediate threat to the health or safety of a person. It will direct the organisation to cease an activity, or make sure that an activity does not proceed in a specified manner. Such notices can severely impact businesses, particularly where any alleged activity involves senior members of the business.

  • Union Inspection: Unions with a WHS entry permit may enter a workplace to inquire into suspected contraventions of the WHS Act. 

  • Workers’ Compensation Claims: Historically, workers have faced challenges in claiming compensation where their claim involves management action. However, there is now a duty of care to manage the risks associated with psychosocial hazards, and how businesses respond to complaints about these hazards may be relevant for any workers’ compensation claims.

The failure of businesses to comply with these obligations can result in serious consequences, including legal action and reputational damage.


Case Studies 

The following are examples of organisations penalised since 2022 for breaching WHS regulations due to psychosocial hazards:

  • A regional university in New South Wales received an improvement notice from the WHS regulator for potential breaches of the WHS Act, including workers being asked to perform jobs beyond the scope of their training or capabilities, facing unrealistic deadlines, lack of job role clarity, and poor procedural justice. (source: Sydney Morning Herald)

  • A city council in Sydney received a WHS warning for the use of yelling, ridicule, and intimidation in the workplace. (source: Sydney Morning Herald)

  • The Queensland Police Service faced lawsuits amounting to millions of dollars from former officers due to the actions of colleagues, with inquiries exposing instances of workplace psychosocial hazards such as racism, sexism, misogyny, and bullying. Employment law experts attributed these breaches of WHS largely to the continued employment of problematic officers. (source: The Guardian)

These cases highlight the potential risks and monetary consequences of neglecting psychological hazards in the workplace, and the importance of addressing and preventing them to ensure a safe and healthy work environment.


Steps to Implement Psychosocial Safety in the Workplace

Implementing psychosocial safety in the workplace requires a strategic approach that considers the specific needs of the organisation and its employees. The following are some steps that businesses can take to implement psychosocial safety in the workplace:

1. Develop a psychosocial safety policy: Businesses should develop a policy that outlines their commitment to psychosocial safety and the measures they will take to ensure their employees’ psychological health and wellbeing. You may like to refer to SafeWork’s Code of Practice to start. 

2. Conduct a psychosocial risk assessment: A psychosocial risk assessment should be conducted to identify the psychosocial hazards present in the workplace and the level of risk they pose to employees. This assessment can include factors such as workload, job demands, workplace relationships, and organisational culture. If you would like to use a pre-made assessment, you can access People at Work, which is a free, evidence-based, psychosocial risk-assessment tool provided by the Australian Government. 

3. Implement control measures: Once the psychosocial hazards and risks have been identified, control measures should be implemented to eliminate or minimise them. These measures can include work design and environment changes, training and education programs, coaching and employee support services.

4. Monitor and review: Regular monitoring and review of the psychosocial safety policy and control measures are essential to ensure they remain effective and relevant to the needs of the organisation and its employees.


Challenges and Solutions

Despite the growing recognition of the importance of psychosocial safety in the workplace, there are still challenges that businesses face when implementing such measures. These challenges can include a lack of awareness or understanding of psychosocial hazards and risks, limited resources, and resistance to change.

However, there are also solutions to these challenges. Businesses can increase awareness and understanding of psychosocial hazards and risks through training, coaching and education programs. They can also allocate resources to support psychosocial safety initiatives and engage employees in the process to increase buy-in and support for change.


Coaching as a Means to Improve Psychosocial Safety

One effective solution for promoting psychosocial safety in the workplace is coaching. Coaching can be used to promote psychosocial safety by supporting employees in developing resilience, managing stress, and improving their mental health and wellbeing. Through coaching, employees can identify their strengths and weaknesses, develop coping strategies, and build their confidence in managing challenging situations.

Moreover, coaching can also support the development of positive workplace relationships, which can promote a psychosocially safe work culture. Coaching can also help individuals to develop their communication skills, conflict resolution skills, and emotional intelligence; all of which are essential for building psychosocially safe workplaces.


Next Steps

Ensuring a psychosocially safe workplace is crucial for both the mental health and wellbeing of employees and for improving the overall performance of organisations. By acknowledging the significance of psychosocial safety and implementing measures to promote it, businesses can create a positive work environment, build trust, and enhance productivity. Although there may be obstacles in implementing psychosocial safety measures, businesses can use various solutions such as coaching to support their employees. By fostering a culture of safety, businesses not only improve the lives of their employees, but also enhance their own success and sustainability.


If you would like coaching to help your team create and maintain a psychosocially safe workplace, you can click to book your free coaching demo

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