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. 

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Stepping forward a bit, maybe

Last week the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) issued a media release describing the meeting of Work Health and Safety Ministers presenting a

“… huge step forward on mental health…”

The “step” is more walking on the spot than a step forward as the obligation to address psychological hazards in the workplace has existed in Australia for decades. It has just been ignored.

However, what caught my attention was this statement:

“Up to 45 per cent of mental health issues are attributable to work…..”

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Psychological harm gets new regulations and funding access

The State of Victoria had a big week on mental health, with the Labor Government allocating billions of dollars to the improvement of the mental health of its citizens. Much of the justification for the spend (and the imposition of a mental health levy on large companies) is in response to the recent Royal Commission into Mental Health Systems. Workplace health and safety was on the agenda in that Royal Commission. Hence, it is worth looking at how, or if, this recent Budget helps employers improve the psychological health of their workers in anticipation of new regulations on this hazard promised by Victoria’s Minister for Workplace Safety, Ingrid Stitt.

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Non-military safety lessons from the latest Royal Commission (open access)

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast an episode of The Signal on April 21, 2021, which discussed the complexity of the culture of Australia’s military, and I strongly recommend you listen to it. It does make some points about culture worth contemplating in the context of one’s own workplace and profession.

The most useful point was that an established institution cannot have a uniform culture that meets the expectations of all relevant stakeholders. Generations take their culture with them. So those who started in the military in the 1980s and 1990s (and later) will bring the values and lessons of that time into their maturity and when they move into senior and leadership positions – positions that are intended to both preserve and progress the organisation’s culture. This will result in conflict between the expectations of new recruits and the realities of the established military executives. Not open revolt, but a dissatisfaction that may or may not result in leaving the organisation.

The topic used by The Signal to illustrate the extremes of the defence force members and stakeholders was mental health.

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Right information, wrong magazine

The OHS Professional magazine for December 2020 contains a very good article about workplace psychological risks and the occupational health and safety (OHS) strategy to prevent mental harm. The only negative is that it is not published in a Human Resources magazine, or one for company directors. The preventative techniques are well known to the OHS profession and based on independent scientific evidence, but it is other managerial disciplines that need to learn the difference between preventing psychological harm and providing symptomatic relief.

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Better mental health context image

Last week, I wrote about the misrepresentation of mental health in a common graphic about the “mental health spectrum”. If only I had had time to read the Productivity Commission’s report into its inquiry on mental health. On page 10 is this image which provides a more accurate context for mental health in Australia.

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Suicide statistics could benefit from a different analysis

Regular readers of this blog would be aware that I feel that the prevention of suicide gains less attention than early intervention and that mental health has dominated suicide discussions to the point that suicides without a mental health context are largely ignored. This situation is starting to change with non-psychological pressures gaining some acknowledgement, if not examination. Mental health still dominates but the pool of contributory factors is expanding.

On 30 November 2020, the Medical Journal of Australia published the best recent example of this change, an article called “Suicide by young Australians, 2006-20415: a cross-sectional analysis of national coronial data.” The most useful statement in the research report, and the media release, is:

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