Australia gets serious on psychological health at work

Below is an article written by Carlo Caponecchia and published originally on May 25 2021. Caponecchia is a leading figure in workplace psychological hazards and strategies. The article is reproduced with permission.

Employers are about to ramp up their efforts to protect mental health at work.

Last week, workplace health and safety (WHS) ministers from around Australia agreed to changes that will formalise what’s expected of employers in relation to mental health in Regulation. 

These changes respond to a review of the model WHS laws by Marie Boland, former Executive director at Safework South Australia. The model WHS laws are a “blueprint” used since 2011 to make safety laws more consistent across the States and Territories. 

A major recommendation of the review was to include risks to psychological health and relevant risk controls in the model Regulation. This is due to the significant impact of work on mental health, confusion over what employers should do, and the patchwork of existing strategies that haven’t been successful.

Preventing psychological harm already exists in the general duties of the WHS law, but inclusion in the Regulations will specify how employers must undertake this duty. 

What does a change to the Regulation mean?

The WHS law (the Acts) contain general duties that employers have to comply with. The Regulations provide more detail on those duties – they “unpack” the law, but must also be complied with. These are supported by Codes of Practice which provide practical advice on what employers could do to comply with the law and Regulation, and Codes of Practice can be used in court to understand what is known about a safety issue. Guidance material from safety regulators provides assistance to employers but is less authoritative, and gives employers more leeway on what actions they should take. 

Currently in relation to psychological health at work in Australia we have a general duty to protect health, including psychological health, in the Acts, plus a range of relevant guidance material. This guidance material includes guidance on workplace bullying, and broader guidance on psychological health.

The changes agreed by WHS ministers last week shifts the information on how to prevent harm to psychological health from guidance (essentially, it’s nice if you do it this way) to Regulation (you must do it this way). 

Why do we need regulation?

Being explicit on what employers’ must do to protect psychological health is necessary because soft approaches haven’t worked. 

Carlo Caponecchia speaking in 2015

The duty to protect workers from harm has existed in the legislation for decades, but mental health compensation claims have skyrocketed since 2000. They accounted for 9% of all serious compensable injuries in 2018-19, were the most costly (up by 209% since 2000), and resulted in the longest time off work compared to other types of injury (Safe Work Australia, 2021).

These statistics underestimate the burden of psychological impacts of work. Compensation data is inherently limited – many workers experience harm that doesn’t reach the compensation threshold, many don’t apply, and many aren’t covered. 

What have we already done?

Given these impacts, a range of actions were already underway to improve the psychological health at work. In 2020, NSW and QLD started developing Codes of Practice on psychological health – these are meant to provide practical steps for prevention and management. 

The current International Standard 45001: 2018 on occupational health and safety management systems, which has been adopted in Australia, has a renewed emphasis on psychological health at work.  A new and hotly anticipated international standard on psychological health at work will be released in June (ISO45003), reflecting global moves on this issue. Many businesses certify to ISO45001, and many of those who don’t will nonetheless use it to guide their system for managing occupational health and safety.

Consistency and alignment between these documents and the proposed Regulations will be key to a smooth transition and maximal uptake as the new Regulations are developed. 

What will it mean?

Enshrining psychological health in Regulation will help evolve our approach towards prevention, rather than just response. 

This will sharpen focus on how activities aimed at raising mental health awareness, while positive, are not enough to meet an organisation’s duties.  Attention of employers and safety regulators will shift to how work is organised so that it does not present sources of harm, rather than on individual level interventions (such as bright and shiny wellness programs, resilience training etc). These are the icing on the cake – and no amount of icing fixes a bad cake.

Making a better cake means paying attention to work tasks, workloads and schedules, role conflict and ambiguity, and quality of supervision and relationships as potential sources of harm. Organisations will need to understand and act in relation to these psychological hazards just as they understand exposure to noise, manual tasks, dust and biohazards.

Though not widely acknowledged, preventing other sources of harm such as bullying, sexual harassment, and violence are already part of an organisation’s WHS duties. 

While there has been significant work on these issues from a WHS perspective in the last 15 years, many employers still treat them in a reactive manner, rather than as risks to health and safety. These changes to the WHS Regulation should help cement the expectation that preventing bullying, harassment and violence is part of providing a safe workplace. 

Drafting the new regulations will be long and challenging road. Significant efforts will be needed to develop competence and confidence in relation designing work so it is unlikely to harm psychological health.

This is an exciting development, and an opportunity to improve the psychological health of all Australians, through the work that we do everyday. 

Carlo Caponecchia, Senior Lecturer at UNSW;
Associate Dean Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, Faculty of Science UNSW

2 thoughts on “Australia gets serious on psychological health at work”

  1. ohs regulators should recognise that stress, violence, bullying and fatigue are distinct hazards and should enforce instruments for each of these hazards-it not progress to think that they are not separate

    1. I have a different perspective. I think that there is enough commonality in the hazards you list that an “umbrella” concept like psychosocial hazards is a valid way of identifying and addressing these hazards. The Umbrella approach can be argued to be more cost effective as the introduction of a single control or change can affect several of the hazards at the same time, if not to the same extent. Multiple approaches to multiple separate hazards could lead to “safety clutter” if not managed very carefully.

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