What are the most challenging psychosocial hazards for OHS?

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.
Wednesday, 22 March, 2023 - 12:15
Industry news
National News

There are a number of psychosocial hazards that present unique challenges for OHS functions because they do not carry the normal assumption of harm that arises for exposure to physical hazards.

Paul Hardman, a partner at law firm K&L Gates, said most organisations will readily grasp that confronting events are psychosocial hazards, such as traumatic events, bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, aggression and violence.

Where organisations operate in environments where there is a high risk of these occurring, Hardman said the challenge for the OHS function will be to avoid complacency and these hazards being normalised as part of the operating environment.

“Organisations in this space should ensure that they bring a fresh mind in identifying psychosocial hazards and considering the available control measures to eliminate or minimise psychosocial risk,” said Hardman, who was speaking ahead of the upcoming AIHS National Health and Safety Conference, which will be held from 30 May to 1 June 2023 at the Brisbane Convention Centre.

Other types of psychosocial hazards are not as straightforward, and Hardman said many psychosocial hazards arise in the ordinary course of performing work, such as workload, role clarity and workplace relationships.

“These will be challenging to manage because they may be invisible to managers in their day-to-day or in a state of flux over time,” he said.

“For example, high job demands and low job demands are psychosocial hazards that will be constantly changing for particular roles, teams and departments, particularly if there are periods of peak and non-peak work in the organisation (such as the end of financial year push).”

These types of psychosocial hazards are also challenging for an OHS function because they do not carry the normal assumption of harm that arises from exposure to physical hazards. “Some people can be exposed to those psychosocial hazards and have no stress response, where the stress response may be high or even extreme for others,” said Hardman.

“The OHS function will need to grapple with the tension in managing those risks between minimising harm and meeting business needs, particularly where employees may seek to advance personal preferences in working styles, locations or duties which are inconsistent with business requirements.”

Hardman also expected there will also be challenges for OHS functions in dealing with psychosocial hazards and risks arising from stakeholders and relationships in which the organisation has a commercial interest.

For example, clients, suppliers and investors may be a source of psychosocial risk for the organisation’s workers, while also being highly valuable to the organisation.

“These risks will need to be carefully managed to ensure that the organisation complies with its safety obligations, while protecting those interests,” he said.

Hardman observed there is a spectrum of organisational responses to psychosocial risks, and he said some organisations have proactively managed the risks and have implemented comprehensive safety management systems for psychosocial risks.

However, others have been more cautious about addressing psychological health and safety at work and have only taken discrete steps to manage these risks in response to workers' compensation claims or regulatory intervention.

Importantly, he noted organisational culture and safety leadership play a defining role in how organisations manage psychosocial risk.

“I have seen some organisations be leaders in this space, who have recognised for a number of years that psychosocial risks are inherent in work and done some good work in developing their control measures to eliminate or minimise them,” he said.

These organisations have been developing preventative measures for psychosocial risks (such as a strong work-life balance focus, flexible work practices, mental health training and programs, and peer support liaisons) over the past five to ten years.

“Other organisations have been hesitant to address psychosocial risks in the workplace, either because they see mental health as a private matter or are dedicating their safety resources to other risks,” he said.

Industries have been on different journeys in managing psychosocial risks, he added: “I am seeing that, where the industry involves a high level of physical risk, they have generally developed more sophisticated safety management systems that have incorporated psychosocial risks over time,” he said.

“Many organisations with office-based workplaces, where serious work health and safety incidents are rare, are working towards adopting a systems-based approach to managing psychosocial risk.”

For organisations looking to address psychosocial hazards and reduce associated legal risks, Hardman said they should identify and understand what specific laws on psychosocial risk will apply to them as a starting point.

Currently, there is no uniform approach to psychosocial risk and legal requirements differ between the states, territories and Commonwealth.

For example, Queensland has regulations that require the hierarchy of controls to be applied to psychosocial risks (unlike some other states) and a 67-page Code of Practice on Managing the risk of psychosocial hazards at work, which both commence on 1 April 2023.

Organisations will then need to determine whether they are already compliant with those laws or if they need to review the adequacy of their management of psychosocial risk in each stage of its safety management system, he said.

“Once the organisation has identified what it needs to do to achieve compliance, it can develop an implementation plan to coordinate the changes that it intends to make,” said Hardman, who added consultation with workers should be a key feature of the process, both from a safety and industrial relations perspective.

“Organisations can then start making any necessary changes to their safety management system to achieve compliance, from identifying hazards relevant to psychosocial risks, reviewing their risk assessments, reviewing their control measures, reviewing their feedback and consultation sources, or improving their incident notification and response processes,” he said.

“Critically, these processes and considerations should be documented so that the business can tell the story of how it manages psychosocial risks if an inspector comes knocking.”

For OHS leaders and functions, Hardman said all the above points reinforce the need to be proactive in managing psychosocial risks and take a whole-of-business approach.

“I encourage OHS leaders and functions to consult with the legal, HR, and rehabilitation functions in their organisation before implementing any changes to manage psychosocial risk,” he said.

“Many control measures for psychosocial risks (such as role redesign) will have adverse industrial relations or employment implications for the organisation if they are not carefully managed.

“Given the lead-up time provided for organisations to comply with the new laws on psychosocial risk, I expect that the regulators will be ready and waiting to enforce compliance once the new laws take effect.”

This has already started occurring in New South Wales, where SafeWork NSW has issued a number of improvement notices for organisations to improve their management of psychosocial risks.

“If your organisation is still on the journey towards managing psychosocial risk, it is important to act quickly and, if you don’t already have support from the executive, to start building the business case for any approvals and funding required,” Hardman concluded.


Hardman will deliver a presentation on “When work is the hazard – implementing a robust, integrated system to manage psychosocial risk” together with Wade Needham, director ESG & EHS, Natural Resources, at the upcoming AIHS National Health and Safety Conference. Held from 30 May to 1 June 2023 at the Brisbane Convention Centre, this year’s conference theme is “Influence for Impact”. For more information please call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.