Unveiling Psychosocial Risks: Protecting Mental Well-being in the Workplace

4 Aug 23

In a ground breaking move, Australia has implemented new laws to address psychosocial risks in the workplace. 

While the term “psychosocial risk” may evoke images of bullying and harassment, in reality it encompasses a broader spectrum of factors that can adversely affect employees’ mental health. Psychosocial risks extend to job demands, job insecurity, poor organisational justice, insufficient support, and lack of recognition or rewards.

What are the obligations on workplaces in Australia?

We know long-term exposure to stress at work can detrimentally impact a worker’s mental health.

Australian workplaces must prevent employee burnout, or causing or contributing to mental illnesses such as anxiety, PTSD, and depression.

While well intentioned, these new laws are creating increased pressure on workplaces to identify, manage, eliminate or control and monitor. In determining the control measures to implement, the Australian laws require workplaces to consider all relevant matters including:

  • the duration, frequency and severity of the exposure of workers and other persons to the psychosocial hazards.
  • the design of the work, which includes exploring the job demands and tasks, understanding excessive time pressures, role conflict, scheduling, matching skills to the work, clarity of roles and responsibilities, lack of power, job control and autonomy in their work.
  • the systems of work, including how work is managed, organised and supported.
  • the design and layout, and environmental conditions, of the workplace, including the provision of:
    • safe means of entering and exiting the workplace.
    • facilities for the welfare of workers.
  • workplace interactions or behaviours.

Detecting psychological deterioration can be more challenging than identifying physical harm. States throughout Australia have introduced Codes of Practice to assist workplaces and provide guidance.

This new focus in Australia marks a significant step towards prioritising employees’ mental well-being and addressing psychosocial hazards in the workplace.

What does this mean for New Zealand?

At present, the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) require persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) to manage hazards and associated risks. The primary duty of care includes reference to PCBU’s providing adequate facilities for the welfare of workers, as well as confirming that the definition of “health” includes both physical and mental.  However, there are no specific provisions on psychosocial risks.

The current HSWA is based on Australian health and safety laws.  History would suggest that if Australia has done it, it is at least likely to be considered here. That could be in the form of regulation in this area, or further guidance in the form of an approved Code of Practice.

We are already seeing a noticeable shift in New Zealand, with a growing focus on this issue.  There has been continued pressure on WorkSafe to prosecute in this area, and WorkSafe has recently published a series of Essays on the topic. In the Courts, Coroner Mills has recently explored workplace stress while inquiring into the death of an Auckland employee who died by suicide.

Many workplaces in New Zealand offer Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), resilience training, mindfulness workshops, or mediation sessions; however, these interventions do not address psychosocial risks at their root.

We encourage all workplaces to start reflecting on their environments, work design, and work systems, and make use of the learnings from across the ditch.

In an environment that is mentally unhealthy, we know turnover rates may rise, sick leave usage may soar, overtime hours may increase, and productivity may decline.  This is all data we can analyse and use to help identify and monitor.  As a starting point we recommend workplaces seek expert guidance, conduct risk assessments, utilise surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one discussions, invest in competent leaders, provide speak-up channels and awareness campaigns, and develop processes to ensure consistent and fair treatment of workers.

Want to know more?

If you have any questions about your health and safety obligations, please contact our specialist Employment Team.

PDF version here.