Where are the psychological health and safety policy gaps?

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.
Tuesday, 28 May, 2019 - 15:45
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While there has been an increased focus on psychological health and safety at both the organisational and governmental levels, there are still significant gaps and more needs to be done from a regulatory and policy perspective, according to an expert in the area.

WHS laws now cover psychosocial hazards and risks through the obligation to protect psychological health, but poor inclusion of relevant terms in legislative instruments hinders translation into practice, said Rachael Potter, a research associate with the University of South Australia’s Asia Pacific Centre for Work Health and Safety.

“Progress has been made by delineating psychological health in the model WHS Act, but a great disparity remains between the focus on physical versus psychosocial issues,” she said.

Potter recently completed a PhD and also published a series of papers on the topic of WHS policy and practice targeted towards work-related psychological health, and her research is the first to evaluate Australian WHS policy on the topic since the new laws in 2012.

“Specifically, there needs to be a WHS regulation for psychosocial hazards,” said Potter.

“Having a specific regulation describing criteria for managing psychosocial hazards would better position protection of psychological health in the broader legislative framework and give it the same prominence as other work-related hazards.”

Another limitation is that the WHS policy context is highly inconsistent between Australian jurisdictions, despite the harmonisation of the WHS policy package in 2012, she observed.

“Certain jurisdictions are much more advanced than others, with great variations in codes of practice, guidance material and practical resources,” said Potter.

“That said, national guidance material on psychological health at work from Safe Work Australia represents valuable progress in attempting to improve national consistency.”

Moving forward, she said it would be beneficial for all jurisdictions to have an equally robust and harmonised policy context for psychosocial issues.

Policy instruments should also address new and emerging psychosocial hazards or psychosocial issues such as the use of digital communication and technological connectivity to work.

“Work-related psychological health is a national concern and all workers – regardless of their jurisdiction – should be protected from harm to the same degree and have equal access to resources,” said Potter.

She explained that the world of work is becoming increasingly characterised by new psychosocial challenges such as greater digital connectivity and organisational competition due to globalisation.

“The WHS community must perceive these socio-political changes as an opportunity to work collaboratively and to regroup, reinvigorate, and reinstate policy principles, with a perspective that ensures the protection of workers’ psychological health,” she said.

“While organisations need to be productive and economically sustainable, they must also fulfil an ethical and legal responsibility to provide healthy and safe work conditions for all workers.”

From a practical perspective, Potter said the WHS regulatory policy framework is not highly effective in assisting management of psychosocial hazards and risks.

“The lack of visibility for psychosocial issues in legislative policy signals to organisations that psychosocial hazards are of lesser importance than physical hazards,” said Potter, who affirmed that introducing a WHS regulation on psychosocial hazards would encourage businesses to implement risk management strategies by providing greater clarity on practical risk assessment and control.

She said there also needs to be more practical guidance material in the form of exemplars and/or case studies to show organisations how to foster a good psychosocial work environment.

“Practical examples can help show how policy principles can be operationalised in Australian businesses and should address emerging psychosocial challenges,” she said.

“Given the predominance of small business in Australia, a specific focus is needed to assist them effectively manage psychosocial hazards and risks due to their small organisational structures and constraints to accessing specialist advice.”

Overall, the foundations exist within the WHS regulatory policy framework, but Potter said more attention is needed to increase the visibility of psychosocial hazards and understanding of how to apply the policy principles in a practical way.

She also noted that the limited numbers of specialised psychosocial risks inspectors are a concern for regulatory efforts.

Specialised psychosocial risk inspectors exist within several jurisdictions in Eastern Australia, and in some regions, she said numbers of psychosocial risk inspectors have been reduced over time.

“Some jurisdictions have no specialised teams and are reflecting limited activity on work-related psychological health,” said Potter.

“Consequently, there is need to skill-up inspectors and WHS practitioners across Australia in psychosocial risk regulation.

“It is critical that the people advising on WHS be able to interpret and apply the law to psychosocial hazards and to understand what evidence would looks like when undertaking audits in organisations.”

Another notable challenge in the Australian policy context involves clarifying the perception of psychological health and safety among inspectors, organisations and the broader community.

Often, Potter said psychological health at work is pathologised and perceived in the context of managing individuals’ mental health conditions.

“It is undeniable that individuals with mental health conditions, or those with greater susceptibility, should be provided with adequate resources in the workplace,” she said.

“Yet, it is critical that the conversation remains on prevention and psychosocial risk management for all workers.

“There is undoubtedly a large proportion of workers whose mental health is negatively affected by poor work design and psychosocial risks, yet whose condition does not fulfil the current diagnostic criteria for mental illness.”

The focus must stay on cultivating conditions that are conducive to good psychological health for all workers with prevention as the goal, according to Potter, who said that creating good psychosocial work conditions should be normalised and psychosocial risk management should be embedded into broader organisational operations.

Potter recommended a number of changes at the policy and practice level, and said the most effective policy improvement would be to include a WHS regulation on psychosocial hazards.

“At present, this layer of the policy framework is silent on relevant terms,” she said.

“There is a disproportionate focus on physical hazards that indirectly sends a message to organisations and regulators that psychosocial hazards and risks are of lesser regulatory importance and impact.

“A person referring to the WHS regulations would need to know that the overarching WHS Act specifies psychological health and is inclusive in the definition of health, and that principles in the WHS Regulations apply equally to psychosocial hazards and risk factors.”

Greater national dialogue is also required, emphasising the application and meaning of the law relating to these issues.

“Specifically, my research revealed a lack of certainty and consistency about how to apply the general duty provisions in the WHS Act,” said Potter, who explained that creating a more consistent understanding of the provisions in both the WHS Act and WHS regulations will help communicate a clearer message to organisations about their legal obligations.

To improve practice, there is a need to develop tools that are simple and evidence-based that can be used by business operators to map their practices against basic compliance.

“Nationally consistent tools are needed to guide regulators in auditing,” she said.

These tools should not be overly prescriptive or generate a command-control approach; rather, tools should equally highlight adaptability in approaches, and emphasise the importance of developing a positive work culture with management commitment towards a good psychosocial work environment.

Similarly, practical psychosocial risk management tools should be developed for Australian businesses and tailored to the policy environment, Potter added.

Furthermore, there should be greater professional development for all WHS practitioners to develop competency in psychosocial risk management.

“Higher numbers of WHS personnel need to be trained to develop the skills, attitudes, and confidence required for managing psychosocial risks,” she said.

“Involvement with national forums (online or in person) should be held for all persons involved in WHS so that each interest group becomes active in collaborative conversation around their different expertise, constraints, and experiences.

“This would present an excellent opportunity to share advice and resources between different groups, as well as shining light on any challenges.”

Potter said it would also be beneficial for larger professional bodies and policymakers to facilitate these forums for different interest groups to come together in a unified way to improve policy and practice.

In addition, there is currently a lack of shared knowledge and expertise in this area, observed Potter, who said greater collaboration between academics, policymakers and WHS regulators is needed to develop an evidence-based body of knowledge that can be widely disseminated and referenced.

“Through embracing and discussing diverse perceptions on this issue, knowledge can be harnessed and better shared, ultimately flowing through to business leaders and WHS practitioners,” she said.

Potter recommended WHS professionals become active in conversations about psychosocial risk regulation and contribute towards a collaborative learning culture.

“They should keep abreast of training and development opportunities to increase their skills and capacities in this area,” she said.

“Professional accreditation schemes should place a priority on assessing WHS practitioners for these competencies in practice.”

A greater understanding of how the polices apply for psychosocial risk regulation will also generate solid ground on which to compel organisations to improve the psychological health of their workers.

This involves becoming familiar with the latest research and international practical tools and approaches for psychosocial risk management.

“Many of these resources are publicly available and free. It is also important to develop an awareness of other jurisdiction’s approaches and to share information and resources nationally,” she said.

“When working with organisations, it is imperative that WHS professionals show the value of cultivating good psychosocial work conditions – both for harnessing innovation and agility in the workforce and for demonstrating organisational productivity and return on investment.

“To achieve this, contacting and collaborating with academic researchers for articles and resource could strengthen the argument for improving psychological health at work.”