How well do leaders really understand 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, 16 February, 2023 - 12:45
Industry news
National News

Senior organisational leaders often struggle to understand the importance of psychosocial hazards and what role they can play in reducing associated risks.

“I have been talking to several people in senior roles about psychosocial hazards, and what I have found is that the terms, ‘psychosocial hazard’, and ‘psychological risk’ are new words to them,” said Diana Sheehan, executive director of EAP, leadership and OHS consulting firm Daly & Ritchie.

“When it comes to managing psychosocial hazards for leaders, we have a long way to go.”

Sheehan was speaking ahead of a four-day series of AIHS webinars organised by The Women in Safety & Health Network (WISH Network) and held from 6 to 9 March in conjunction with International Women’s Day.

Sheehan gave the example of one psychosocial hazard: high job demand, and explained that time pressure, high vigilance and long hours of work require sustained high levels of physical, mental and emotional energy.

As such, she said it is important that leaders gain awareness to not only understand how this hazard affects their ability to perform their role, but also consider how the pressure of this hazard has the potential to change their leadership behaviour.

“A leader could potentially result in unintentionally creating a psychosocial hazard of their own for someone else,” said Sheehan, who added organisations must include psychosocial hazards in their leadership development programs.

“Leadership is an ongoing professional practice that requires organisations to develop their leaders so they can identify the risks to not only their own psychological health and safety but that of their team,” she said.

There are organisations that commenced addressing psychosocial hazards some time ago, according to Sheehan, and she said these organisations have identified psychosocial hazards in their workplace and are considering strategies to either eliminate or reduce risk.

“They are taking a proactive and preventive approach. Other organisations, however, still have some way to go,” said Sheehan, who explained the most common challenges for organisations are fivefold:

1.      Understanding their obligation when it comes to psychological risk

2.      Accepting that psychosocial hazards at work must be effectively managed

3.      Accepting that as an organisation they must change by firstly becoming self-aware – looking at the organisation's blind spots and their biases when it comes to mental health at work

4.      Normalising psychological safety including training of managers and supervisors, and

5.      Putting in place systems and programs to eliminate, reduce and monitor psychosocial hazards.

COVID-19 has also provided challenges for organisations and businesses, in addition to highlighting the importance of mental health and psychological safety.

“I believe that COVID-19 showed that psychosocial hazards will impact us all differently. Therefore, when we think of psychosocial hazards, what may not be a hazard for one person, will be for another,” said Sheehan.

For example, there were workers who preferred to work from home, and they found that their productivity increased and their mental health improved.

“They were able to reduce the psychosocial hazards that they were experiencing in the workplace; an example is poor workplace relationships,” she said.

There are a number of important implications for OHS professionals, and Sheehan said organisations and businesses that have a safety leadership team who has built good relationships with their people and culture colleagues are ahead of everyone else.

“I believe there is an opportunity for OHS professionals to become leaders in managing the risk of psychosocial hazards at work. However, OHS professionals need to look at their current leadership skills and abilities,” she said.

“Identify what skills they have and develop a leadership practice plan that will meet the needs of the industry they work in and their profession. Whenever I talk to people, I always state, ‘leadership is an ongoing development practice.’”

Sheehan will be presenting on leadership psychosocial hazards as part of a four-day series of AIHS webinars organised by The Women in Safety & Health Network (WISH Network). The webinars will be held from 6 to 9 March in conjunction with International Women’s Day, and other speakers include Rhiannon Sutherland from Communities at Work (AWHSA Health & Safety leader of the Year 2022) as well as Hayley Foster, CEO of FULL Stop. For more information please call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.