How can organisations proactively address psychosocial hazards?

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Thursday, 2 December, 2021 - 12:30
Industry news
National News

Many organisations are only just beginning to take active steps to design work in such a way as to address psychosocial hazards, according to Curtin University.

“To date, most organisations have focused on what we refer to as ‘mitigate illness’ in our ‘thrive framework’, which involves recognising and supporting workers when they are struggling from mental ill-health and stress,” said Sharon Parker, a John Curtin distinguished professor in organisational behaviour in the faculty of business and law at Curtin University.

For example, strategies for mitigating illness include ensuring supervisors know how to spot signs of mental stress amongst their team and providing EAPs or other forms of support to stressed workers.

“Organisations in Australia are quite strong on mitigating illness these days,” said Parker, who recently spoke at the Australian Institute of Health & Safety (WA Branch) Perth Safety Symposium.

“Only recently have some organisations begun to understand that work itself, when poorly designed, can cause stress and mental ill-health.”

There are a number of common gaps and challenges for organisations, and Parker said that designing work to be healthier and to reduce psychosocial risks means that organisations first need to accept and own that their work practices might be the cause of poor worker mental health.

“Not all organisations, or managers within them, are very comfortable with this idea,” said Parker, who is a world-leading researcher in areas including work design, proactivity, mental health and job performance.

“Many tend to assume that poor worker mental health is down to the worker him or herself, such as problems the worker has in their home life, or the person being insufficiently resilient.

“Of course, home-life issues and a lack of resilience ‘can’ be the cause of poor mental health in workers, but sometimes work too is a cause, and sometimes work interacts with these more individual causes.”

The first challenge for organisations is to accept that they need to look carefully at the work design of their workers, and investigate whether the work itself is in any way contributing to workers’ mental health and well-being, she said.

Second, it is important to involve workers themselves in diagnosing the situation, according to Parker: “many times, managers assure me that their workers have high-quality work when, in fact, when you talk to the workers or survey them, they provide a very different story.

“Managers need to recognise they have only a very partial understanding of the work design of their workers.”

Surveys, observations, and interviews are all ways to understand the workforce’s work design, allowing the opportunity to now just understand what the psychosocial risks are, but who experiences which risks, and when.

Third, Parker said another major challenge for organisations is the importance of involving people in any work redesigns.

“Managers and other organisational stakeholders can perceive they know best, and also feel that it’s risky to get the input of workers,” she said.

“But workers are the experts in their jobs and, with guidance, can usually come up with excellent ideas for improving their work designs.

“We use the SMART work design model, which is a simple model of high-quality work that is based on research.

“We encourage organisations to design work in a participative way (involving workers themselves) to create jobs that are stimulating, mastery-oriented, agentic, relational, and that have tolerable demands.”

Not only does such work design reduce psychosocial hazards, but Parker said it can promote better performance as well.

“We are finding many organisations welcome this more positive approach to creating mentally healthy work,” she said.

Fourth, to really embed improved work designs Parker said it is often important to look at the whole organisational system, making supporting changes to human resource practices and policies (e.g., recruitment, training, flexibility policies, etc) as well as changes to other aspects such as organisational design, culture, and technology.

Finally, it is critical to evaluate the change, both in terms of whether the work design has been improved and what impact the changes have had on worker health, safety and well-being.

“This is important because otherwise, organisations do not learn what really works, and so they can get in a cycle of constantly changing things in a surface-like manner, without really creative positive and tractable change,” said Parker.

She noted OHS professionals are in an important position to help create mentally healthy workplaces.

“However, many OHS professionals will need to upskill themselves by learning more about mental health and well-being, and how to create mentally healthy work, because their traditional focus and training has been on physical health,” said Parker.

“OHS professionals are also in a great position to help organisations to bring in other forms of complementary expertise, such as organisational psychologists, human resource managers, or change agents.”