Managing psychological risks in the workplace

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of members. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institue of Health & Safety.
Thursday, 3 September, 2020 - 12:00
Industry news
National News

There are a number of ways organisations and OHS professionals can help people stay close to the healthier end of the psychological health spectrum, according to a specialist in workplace health and safety.

“Perhaps it’s the complexity that frightens us all about psychological health. And, indeed, it is daunting,” said Carolyn Davis, past director of work health and safety and workers compensation policy for the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and an experienced senior manager in the field.

“Our psychological health is influenced by many, often overlapping factors. Our position on the spectrum between dis-stress and good stress changes all the time. There are good days and bad days,” she said.

Risk factors and protective factors can nudge people back and forth along the continuum, and Davis said these factors can be individual or related to family, or other life circumstances as well as by work.

“My focus here is on work-related factors that we do have some control over and we can do something about,” said Davis, who recently spoke at an AIHS webinar on managing psychosocial risks in the workplace.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 2017-18 National Health Survey (NHS), around 13 per cent (or 2.4 million) adults experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress, an increase from 2014-15 (11.7 per cent or 2.1 million). 

This is based on data collected before the onset of the pandemic. “Work is a big part of our lives and continually changes,” said Davis.

“It is in everyone’s interests to understand, to be proactive and to actively support people, whatever the original cause or trigger. 

“A positive, knowledgeable and supportive workplace can mean the difference between being ‘in the green’ or ‘in the orange’.”

Some 30 per cent of Australian leaders themselves report that they do not address mental health issues in their workplace, according to Superfriends’ Indicators of a Thriving Workplace Survey 2018 National Report.

“And generally, this is because of a lack of understanding, lack of training and a lack of support for employees experiencing mental health issues,” said Davis.

“The good news is that it doesn’t need to be hard and doesn’t always require qualifications or massive programmes.”
Most importantly, she said the work environment should help people feel safe to talk about psychological health, where they stay engaged and are not intimidated or worried. 

“They should feel comfortable to raise things and to have conversations,” said Davis, who added that the language used is also important (MindFrame have some good suggestions). “Conversations and real-time access to information can help us all stay in the ‘good’ end of the spectrum,” she said.

“Talking about these things openly helps everyone understand that they are not alone. And it can reveal solutions” said Davis, who recommended beyondblue’s resources on how to have appropriate conversations.

Leaders in the field report that a psychologically healthy workplace is where an organisation:

(a) establishes trust and respect among its members; 

(b) values employee contributions; 

(c) communicates regularly with its employees; and 

(d) takes employee needs into account when creating new initiatives


“I agree, but I believe we should add good work design to the list,” said Davis.

“The way our work is designed affects how we feel about our job and can influence whether we feel motivated, engaged, bored, or stressed at work. I am not talking about fruit-boxes and yoga, although they may have a place.”

Rather, Davis recommended SafeWork Australia’s guidance on good work design and their guidance on work-related factors such as Work-related psychological health and safety - A systematic approach to meeting your duties.

Davis said psychological health can be adversely affected by exposure to a range of hazards or factors in the workplace, including, for example:

  1. High/low job demand
  2. Poor support
  3. Poor workplace relationships
  4. Low role clarity
  5. Low levels of control or autonomy
  6. Poor organisational change management
  7. Poor organisation justice
  8. Poor environmental conditions
  9. Uncertain recognition and reward
  10. Remote or isolated work, and
  11. Violent or traumatic events.

In essence, she said the above issues can be addressed in a similar way to physical risk management through: 

  • preventing harm and being proactive (including good job design), 
  • intervening early and managing risks, and 
  • supporting and enhancing recovery.

“When we all share the knowledge, have some skills and abilities to detect signs and symptoms around psychological health, and offer appropriate supports, everyone benefits including the organisation,” said Davis.

The Australian Institute of Health and Safety recently released a position statement on psychological health, workplace health and safety, to contribute to a better understanding of the issues, including use of language, and the context for the OHS profession. Alternatively, click here to explore the chapters related to psychological health and the work of the profession in the OHS Body of Knowledge.