In June 2022 significant amendments to Australian model work health and safety (WHS) laws saw the inclusion of provisions that specifically cover psychosocial hazards in the workplace. On 1 August 2022, SafeWork released the new Model Code of Practice, providing further guidance on employer responsibilities to manage psychosocial hazards at work.
These responsibilities extend well beyond the physical work environment and the way in which tasks are performed, to include any hazards that arise from, or relate to the design or management of work, a work environment, or workplace interactions and behaviours that may cause psychological harm. The amendments have already been adopted by most states and territories and an increased regulator focus is anticipated in the coming 12 months.
Key to the changes is the requirement to consider the way employees interact with each other as potentially giving rise to psychosocial hazards and influencing the risk of psychological harm in the workplace. This extends much further than the usual obligations to manage and prevent bullying and harassment at work and includes perception-based risks that can be difficult to identify, assess and control.
How do psychosocial hazards cause harm?
Psychosocial hazards can create stress. Stress is the body’s reaction when a worker perceives the demands of their work exceed their ability or resources to cope.
Stress creates a physiological and psychological response in the body by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, raising the heart rate and blood pressure, boosting glucose levels in the bloodstream and diverting energy from the immune system to other areas of the body.
Stress itself is not an injury but if it becomes frequent, prolonged or severe it can cause psychological and physical harm (SafeWork Model Code of Practice, August 2022).
The new code requires that an employee’s perception of interactions and behaviours of others at work is relevant to whether there is a risk of harm must be considered, irrespective of whether those interactions or behaviours have breached expected standards of conduct. This is a tricky area to navigate, even for the most experienced people managers!
Employees are often reluctant to report workplace stress or potential psychosocial risks to their manager, fearing that issues may not be addressed effectively or that raising concerns could have negative repercussions for their ongoing employment. This makes it particularly difficult for organisations to effectively identify and assess psychosocial hazards.
WEIR provide a number of diagnostic tools and services to help our clients in this area. These include customized staff surveys, individual and group focused workplace culture reviews, triage of staff complaints and grievances, conflict resolution, coaching and training services. Contact us for more information on how we can support you to meet your obligation to manage psychosocial hazards.
Author: Kirsty Temple is a highly experienced human resources professional and investigator who has spent over 15 years’ leading strategic and operational workforce functions in government and non-government organisations.