work-related psychological health

For this World Mental Health Day and Mental Health Month we thought it would be good to delve into managing work-related psychological health. To do this we unpack the recently published Draft Code of Practice from SafeWork NSW. The Code is a welcome step to support the journey for organisations to provide mentally healthy workplaces.

Workplace mental health is emerging as a critical issue especially since the arrival of COVID-19. There have been anecdotal reports that 80% of your employees are anxious, and suicide attempts have increased by 5%. They are worried about losing their job, many are isolated working from home, and they are incredibly concerned that they will catch the coronavirus.

In a survey conducted by the Australian Industry Group in April 2020, they found that 31% of employers report that their employees are highly anxious and 38% said their HR and OHS professionals are severely overloaded.

However, managing work-related psychological health is a complex issue. Your employees need to learn coping strategies to address stress and anxious and depressive feelings, and they must know where they can seek help if issues become overwhelming. Your Supervisors and Managers are also at risk because they are likely to be approached more by their teams with escalating mental health concerns due to COVID-19.

Ensuring psychologically healthy and safe work helps organisations to meet their WHS legal responsibilities. It also contributes to a decrease in organisational disruptions and costs resulting from work-related harm and may improve performance and productivity.

What Are the Risks of Work-Related Psychological Health?

Your employee’s psychological health is vulnerable to the design or management of work and the way people interact with each other. Examples of poor work design include:

  • Poor communication between supervisors, workers and others leads to incidents of work-related psychological ill-health.
  • Extreme working environments, for example, extreme temperatures, high noise levels, hazardous tasks, poor air quality, and unpleasant working environments.
  • High levels of physical and mental fatigue through long working hours or shift work.
  • Low-levels of control and influence where workers perceive they have little control and say over how and when they do their work and when they can take breaks.
  • Exposure to an event, or threat of an event which is deeply distressing or disturbing for the individual, such as verbal or physical abuse.
  • Poorly planned and managed organisational change.
  • A lack of organisational justice and fairness where there is inconsistency, bias or lack of transparency in the way procedures are implemented, and decisions are made, or workers treated.
  • A lack of recognition and reward where little positive feedback is offered for good performance.
  • Unclear or constantly changing management expectations about the responsibilities of the job.
  • Poor management and supervisory skills that can lead to uncertainty about what needs to be done, work priorities and poor workload planning.
  • Excessive work demands where sustained and/or excessive effort is required to meet the physical, mental and or emotional demands of the work.

See our article on The Critical Role of a Supervisor.

How to Use a Risk Management Approach to Manage Psychological Health

Managing workplace psychological health should be supported by a 4-step risk management approach.

Step One: Identify Psychosocial Hazards 

You must understand your legal obligations and get a commitment to the process from senior organisational leaders. Also, you need to look at what your organisation is already doing to meet those requirements. Consider how you will maintain appropriate confidentiality and trust and the types of communication you will use.

Note the nature and type of work undertaken by your organisation and the operating environment and pressures. You should endeavour to understand the interactions and behaviours between people at work and within your supply chain that impact workers and others. Finally, look for trends of work-related psychological health complaints.

See our article, How To Perform a Risk Assessment.

Step Two: Assess The Risks to Psychological Health

You must make sure you consider both the usual work conditions and reasonably foreseeable unusual operating conditions. Always assess tasks and jobs where psychosocial hazards and risks to psychological health have been identified. You should consider the frequency (how often, how long) and how severe exposure to the psychosocial hazards is as this will influence the likelihood of harm occurring. Also, you should consider the potential short and long-term effects on workers’ psychological and physical health and safety.

See our article, COVID-19 Psychological Health Legal Implications.

Step Three: Control Risks to Psychological Health

Use the hierarchy of controls to choose the highest level of control. Under WHS laws, work-related hazards that present a risk to work-related psychological health must be eliminated so far as is reasonably practicable. If that is not reasonably practicable, the risks must be minimised so far as is reasonably practicable.

Eliminating the risk means designing or redesigning work, so the risk is no longer present. For example, look at the work demands and ensure that there is always enough adequately trained staff to do the work and set achievable performance targets.

Minimising work-related psychological health risks means designing or redesigning the work and the working environment and substituting these with less hazardous alternatives. For example, monitor workloads and increase staff numbers during peak times, and allow more time for difficult tasks. Where possible, provide workers with reasonable control over their work, for example when they can take breaks to manage their fatigue.

You should also increase the level of practical and emotional support during peak workloads. Ensure that you minimise role confusion by clearly defining workers’ tasks, duties, reporting structures and performance standards, and provide timely and fair feedback.

If risks remain after you take steps to eliminate or minimise them, you must implement relevant administrative controls such as safe systems of work, policies and procedures, and staff management, supervision and training, to ensure that you meet the required workplace behaviours. These include training and policies on how to deal with bullying, harassment, including sexual harassment, occupational violence and unreasonable work behaviours.

See our article, Workplace Hazards and the Hierarchy of Controls.

Step Four: Monitor and Review Controls

You must maintain, monitor and review and then if necessary, revise control measures for risks to work-related psychological health to make sure they remain effective. You must ensure these, so far as is reasonably practicable, reach the highest level of control.

Training to Maintain Good Psychological Health

Training is an important support mechanism to prevent poor work-related psychological health and there are two areas where the Draft Code of Practice suggests that you focus your efforts. The first area is to equip your leaders, managers and supervisors with soft skills as well as what to do to support the psychological health of the people that they manage.

The second area is to provide training for all employees to teach them effective coping strategies to build their resilience.

The Tap into Safety online and mobile-friendly platform has comprehensive mental health, and leaders & managers training. Examples of our microlearning courses include:

  1. Helping Employees with Mental Health Concerns
  2. Signs of Declining Mental Health in Employees
  3. Workload and Burnout
  4. Fatigue Management
  5. Effective Communication
  6. Resolving Conflict
  7. The Role of the Supervisor
  8. Health & Safety Fundamentals

Why not try a free trial or contact us for more information?

How Should You Respond to Reports of Psychosocial Hazards?

You must create a positive organisational culture which actively supports early reporting of problems so you can get this information promptly. It is likely investigations into psychosocial hazards and incidents will be sensitive and complex. If you need to conduct a formal process, those undertaking the investigation should be competent, able to identify psychosocial hazards, sources of risks, assess risks and recommend appropriate preventative and early intervention control measures.

How you respond to work-related psychological health issues is critically important. Confidentiality, trust and sensitivity are all crucial to maintain a positive organisational culture and you should address reports fairly and quickly. Always follow your organisation’s guidelines on how to support your employee’s psychological health if they approach you for help with a mental health concern. You should listen to their concerns without judgment and be careful not to try and solve their issues for them.

If your employee is at risk of harm you must ensure that they see their doctor or contact your employee assistance provider for immediate support. If you are prepared and pre-plan how to respond when an employee expresses a personal problem, it will be easier for you to deal with if you are approached.

See our article, Best Manager Actions for Employee Mental Health.

To Conclude

2020 is placing the spotlight on mental health as COVID-19 takes a heavy toll. However, many organisations struggle with where to start in supporting their employee’s mental health and developing a mentally healthy workplace. SafeWork NSW has developed a Draft Code of Practice to help organisations to manage work-related psychological health. The Code uses a risk management approach to help organisations assess the levels of psychological risks in their organisation.

There are several areas that you should assess to maintain good mental health and these include communication, the working environment, job control, job demand, organisational justice, managing change, management and supervisory skills, and expectations.

Strategies that you can use to improve the resilience of your workforce include training managers and supervisors in soft skills, training your employees in coping strategies, redesigning work during peak times to provide additional support, and developing policies and procedures on how to deal with bullying, harassment, including sexual harassment, occupational violence and unreasonable work behaviours.

This article is also available on the Tap into Safety Podcast.

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