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How OHS professionals can take a more proactive approach to psychosocial health

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of members. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Date: 
Wednesday, 16 June, 2021 - 13:00
Category: 
Industry news
Location: 
National News

Organisations need to move from reactive and symptoms-focused workplace mental health interventions to a more systemic, preventative and root-cause based approach to psychosocial health, according to an expert in the area.

“The way we manage mental health in the workplace is backwards,” said Jason van Schie, psychologist and managing director of consulting firm People Diagnostix.

“Any OHS professional knows that elimination and engineering controls are far more effective at addressing risk than administration or PPE controls.

“However, when it comes to psychosocial risk, the most popular approaches are right at the bottom of the hierarchy of control – fruit bowls, yoga, mindfulness apps, mental health first aid and resilience training.”

Under this approach, van Schie observed states like NSW witnessed a 53 per cent increase in psychological injury claims between 2015-2019 (versus just 3.5 per cent increase for physical injury claims) while the UK had 46 per cent of their working days lost due to non-fatal accidents and injuries attributed to work-related stress, anxiety and depression.

“This was pre-pandemic,” said van Schie, who was speaking ahead of an AIHS webinar on workplace mental health – from wellbeing to risk management and the evolving role of the OHS professional, which will be held on Wednesday 20 October 2021.

van Schie noted there has been a strong move in recent years to change this narrative to increase the effectiveness of workplace mental health.

“This has only been further emphasised by the well-publicised mental health impacts of the pandemic,” he said.

“The advice is loud and strong: organisations need to move from individual, reactive, symptoms focused workplace mental health interventions to a systemic, preventative and root cause approach.”

This is the theme of the newly drafted NSW Code of Practice for Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work (developed in anticipation of the update to the WHS Act), and the new international standard for psychological health and safety at work: ISO 45003:2021.

van Schie also noted the move of ISO to create a child standard to ISO 45001:2018 Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems is deliberate: “let’s place the responsibility of psychological injury prevention in the portfolio of OHS,” he said.

“While some OHS professionals are welcoming the opportunity of applying their experience in risk management and data analytics to employee mental health, some are pushing back. “However, if the goal of health and safety is to ensure workers go home in the same (or better) condition as when they arrived at work – then shouldn’t they throw their hat in the ring?

“There is nothing to be afraid of, but there is clearly a competence gap in the profession,” said van Schie, who provides free training materials beginning with an introductory course on the new ISO 45003 standard.

van Schie also said OHS professionals need to understand that sources of stress have a cumulative effect on employee mental health.

Stress can come from individual factors (such as personal relationships, financial concerns or health concerns), workplace factors (such as role overload/underload, poor job control or lack of role clarity), and macro factors (such as global pandemic and recession).

“The only obligation the OHS profession has in relation to this is to control that which is in their control – which are the work-related factors,” said van Schie, who added that, contrary to popular approaches to workplace mental health (such as the provision of EAP – reactive mental health assistance) is not an employer obligation.

van Schie said work-related stress and psychological injuries were already at record levels pre-pandemic.

“What we need to understand is that due to the extra macro stressors of the pandemic, that employee resilience is being tested like never before,” he said.

“Many OHS feel overwhelmed at the scale of the issue and we are noticing that some are getting distracted by things that are outside of their portfolio – or going for quick fixes such as yoga and corporate massages.

“If, however, OHS realises that individual factors and macro factors are outside of their control, but the fact that people are working 14 hours a day with no support from colleagues or line managers are factors that can be risk assessed and controlled through the lens of a hierarchy of control, then they will have a far greater impact on psychological injury prevention and mental wellbeing levels of the workforce,” said van Schie.

 

van Schie will be speaking ahead at an AIHS webinar on workplace mental health – from wellbeing to risk management and the evolving role of the OHS professional, which will be held from 14:30-15:30 AEST on Wednesday 20 October 2021. For more information contact (03) 8336 1995, email events@aihs.org.au or visit the event website.