Managing psychosocial hazards in the workplace
The global Covid-19 pandemic introduced many lessons for employers but perhaps none so great as the importance of managing the wellbeing of workers.
As workplaces continue to transition to a new way of operating, a dominating factor has been that of better managing psychosocial hazards in the workplace in order to better protect workers’ mental health and increase overall productivity and job satisfaction.
Legal duty of employers to maintain a safe work environmentThe Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) (WHS Act) imposes a duty of care upon employers to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risk to the health of their workers, so far as is reasonably practicable.
Similarly, employees owe a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, the health and safety of others within the workplace, and to comply with the lawful directions of their employer.
A failure to comply with a primary duty under the WHS Act may sound in the imposition of maximum penalties of between $500,000 (Category 3 Offence) to $3 million (Category 1 Offence) for a body corporate, between $100,000 and $600,000 or 5 years’ imprisonment for a person conducting a business or undertaking, and between $50,000 up to $300,000 or 5 years’ imprisonment for an individual worker.
Commencing on 1 April 2023, the Work Health and Safety (Psychosocial Risks) Amendment Regulation 2022 (Qld), will impose new duties upon employers to:
- so far as is reasonably practicable, ensure workers and other people in the workplace are not exposed to risks to their psychological health; and
- eliminate psychosocial risks in the workplace, or if that is not reasonably practicable, to minimise the risks so far as is reasonably practicable.
What are psychosocial hazards?Psychosocial hazards are factors in the design or management of work that increase the risk of work-related stress and which can lead to psychological or physical harm.
Psychosocial hazards vary depending on the nature of the employer’s business and workplace environment but may include:
- Mental stress;
- Remote work;
- Excessive or unreasonable workplace changes;
- Client aggression;
- Workplace bullying/harassment;
- Exposure to trauma;
- Excessive workload or demands;
- Lack of clarity of role/expectations;
- Long working hours and/or unreasonable expectations to respond to work communications outside of core hours;
- Lack of job security;
- Micro-management, lack of autonomy;
- Poor workplace culture;
- Inconsistent application of workplace policies and procedures;
- Poor management of under-performance;
- Lack of support, training, inadequate equipment or resources;
- Inadequate mental stimulation;
- Lack of recognition or reward;
- Unsafe work environments (lack of space, excessive noise/disruptions, poor air quality etc.).
Impact of psychosocial hazardsPsychosocial hazards may give rise to serious physical and/or mental stress which may impact a worker’s emotional wellbeing, ability to cope and their ability to perform their role to their full capacity.
A worker affected by psychosocial hazards may experience a deterioration in their professional and/or personal relationships, a reduction in their workplace performance, decreased levels of focus and motivation and/or irritability, apathy or confusion. Exposure to psychosocial hazards may also lead to workers adopting damaging habits and anti-social behaviours including substance abuse, a reduction in exercise and standards of personal care, and/or engaging in disruptive, intolerant, avoidant or confrontational conduct.
Employers who do not adequately manage psychosocial hazards will almost invariably see an increase in absenteeism or staff turnover, significant reductions in staff morale and productivity, increased workplace conflict or client dissatisfaction and/or injury and illness amongst workers.
Identifying psychosocial hazards in the workplaceIn order to create a healthy and supporting workplace, it is important for employers to identify those psychosocial hazards which may arise or exist within their business.
This may be achieved by undertaking a review of workers’ terms of engagement, the scope of each individual’s role, the company’s workplace policies and procedures, the suitability of resources available to workers to aid them in performing their key functions, and an evaluation of the nature and level of support which is afforded to workers to enable them to carry out their workplace duties.
Anonymised employee questionnaires can also offer valuable insight into other factors which may not be readily apparent to an employer but which routinely affect workers in the course of their workday, and may serve to deepen the communication and trust as between the employer and its workers by demonstrating the employer’s preparedness to actively consult, consider and act upon staff feedback.
Managing psychosocial hazardsUnder the new laws, an employer must have regard to all relevant matters when determining the control measures to implement, including—
(a) the duration, frequency or severity of the exposure of workers and other persons to psychosocial hazards; and
(b) how the psychosocial hazards may interact or combine; and
(c) the design of work, including job demands and tasks; and
(d) the systems of work, including how work is managed, organised and supported; and
(e) the design and layout, and environmental conditions, of the workplace, including the provision of—
(i) safe means of entering and exiting the workplace; and
(ii) facilities for the welfare of workers; and
(f) the design and layout, and environmental conditions, of workers’ accommodation; and
(g) the plant, substances and structures at the workplace; and
(h) workplace interactions or behaviours; and
Once an employer has identified potential or existing psychosocial hazards in the workplace, it is imperative that appropriate steps be taken to eliminate or manage those risks to avoid any adverse impact to workers’ mental health and/or physical wellbeing.
This may include implementing improved workplace policies and procedures to ensure safe and fair workplace practices, introducing corporate health initiatives (such as subsidised gym memberships or an employee assistance program), providing training to managers in the areas of workplace communication, employee performance, risk management and/or mental health first-aid training, and conducting periodic reviews of all roles to ensure that workflow and duties are allocated equitably among all workers according to their capacity and skill-set.
ConclusionOnce the legislative amendments come into force, employers who fail to discharge their legal duty to properly eliminate or manage psychosocial hazards in the workplace such as to protect against any foreseeable risk to their workers may be exposed to significant penalties.
Separate to the overarching legal duty imposed upon employers, are the significant impacts to which an organisation is exposed when psychosocial hazards are not adequately eliminated or managed, in terms of its overall productivity, profitability, safety record, staff morale and retention.
In preparation for the introduction of the legislative amendments set to take effect in early 2023, employers may take practical guidance on how to achieve compliance with workplace health and safety standards from the Model Code. However, principals wishing to assess their compliance are urged to seek early independent legal advice to ensure that the measures taken are sufficiently adequate when having regard to the bespoke nature of their business and work environment.
References Safe Work Australia, Model Code of Practice: Managing psychosocial hazards at work (July 2022) (July 2022).
 Work Health and Safety (Psychosocial Risks) Amendment Regulation 2002 (Qld) r 55; see also WorkSafe Victoria, ‘Psychosocial hazards contributing to work-related stress’ (Web Page, 30/10/22) <Psychosocial hazards contributing to work-related stress | WorkSafe Victoria>.
 Comcare, ‘Psychosocial hazards’, Preventing Harm and Injury at Work (Web Page, 30/10/22) < Psychosocial hazards | Comcare>.
 Work Health and Safety (Psychosocial Risks) Amendment Regulation 2002 (Qld) r 55D.
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