Managing Risks to Psychological Safety at Work

It is increasingly recognised that there are significant benefits when employers make psychological health and wellbeing at work a priority.

Why is psychological safety important?

As noted in WEIR’s 2020 Whitepaper on Workplace Bullying, research has shown that having policies, practices, and procedures for worker psychological health and safety will increase the levels of worker productivity, wellbeing and positive behaviour and minimise risk.

Failing to act on these issues can have serious consequences. According to Safework NSW there was a 53% increase in claims for psychological injury between 2014/15 and 2018/19 compared to only a 3.5% increase in the same period for physical injuries.

Safework NSW has now released a draft code of practice on managing the risks to psychological health at work (referred to as psychosocial risks). Codes of practice under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (the WHS Act) are guides on how to comply with the WHS Act in a particular area. Once finalised, this Code will be applicable to all persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs).

What does the WHS Act say about psychological safety?

Under the WHS Act a PCBU has a primary duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the psychological health and safety of workers. The PCBU must also ensure that other persons are not put at risk from work arising from their business or undertaking.

As with other risks, a PCBU must eliminate risks to psychological health so far as is reasonably practicable, and if that is not reasonably practicable, they must minimise the risks so far as is reasonably practicable.

Failure to comply with a duty under the WHS Act may lead to investigation and possible prosecution.

What is contained in the Code?

The Code provides instructions on how to identify, assess, control and monitor risks to psychological safety at work.

Importantly the Code contains a list of common psychosocial hazards, for example:

  • Poorly planned and managed organisational change
  • Inconsistency, bias or lack of transparency in the way procedures are implemented, decisions are made, or workers treated
  • where workers are exposed to regular conflict, unpleasant, unreasonable and or illegal behaviours
  • Sustained and/or excessive effort is required to meet the physical, mental and or emotional demands of the work.

Depending on the frequency, nature, severity and timeframe of the hazard, the consequences can include mild to harmful stress, PTSD, fatigue, anxiety, depression, burnout, musculoskeletal injury, accidents and chronic disease.

It also provides a list of control measures to control the risks.

Some examples of best practice recommended by the Code are:

  • Ensure workers feel safe to report issues to appropriate persons, so psychological health and other risks can be managed before serious harm occurs
  • Ensure that investigations into misconduct allegations or complaints about behaviour are fair, objective, and timely. Workers should be informed of their rights and obligations and the process timeframe; receive regular communication throughout the process; have access to support mechanisms and be informed of any appeal or review options
  • Ensure that any information, training, instruction or supervision necessary to protect all persons from risks to psychological health is provided
  • Be able to demonstrate that all relevant psychosocial hazards, risk factors and issues have been adequately considered
  • Identify the sources of stress which may lead to poor worker behaviour rather than just disciplining the workers involved
  • Control risks through good organisation design and effective management rather than just settle for training and policies.

What does this mean for me?

A code of practice is not mandatory. It may however be relied on by courts when deciding what a PCBU should have known about the risk and what actions were reasonably practicable. Therefore you should familiarise yourself with the final Code and follow its guidelines if you have a duty under the WHS Act.

Christa Ludlow is a Principal Consultant with Weir Consulting (National)  and is a lawyer,  qualified coach and mediator.  She provides workplace conflict resolution, investigation, coaching and training services to clients in the public and private sectors.