Print Share

Where do companies fall down in managing critical psychosocial risks?

Tuesday, 23 July, 2019 - 14:00
Industry news
National News

While progress has been made in managing critical psychosocial risks in recent years, there is still much room for improvement when it comes to managing these risks in most organisations, according to EY.

“What we are seeing is high levels of awareness of the increasing and increasingly complex nature of psychosocial risks and that something needs to be done; this is coming from many directions including employees, OHS and HR professionals, Boards and executive, as well as the wider community,” said Jessica Cranswick, a senior manager in sustainability services at EY.

There has been a large effort from mental health not-for-profits in raising awareness of mental health/ill-health and observed that there now exists a social conscious about the role the workplace plays in contributing to and managing psychosocial risk.”

This coupled with a legislative spotlight as OHS regulators emphasise due diligence requirements, has had a big impact and inspired action, said Cranswick, who was speaking ahead of the 2019 Victorian Safety Symposium, which will be held in Melbourne on Thursday 5 September.

“While we are increasingly seeing action aimed at providing a mentally healthy workplace, there is too often not a strategic and coordinated approach to the management of psychosocial risks,” she said.

“From my discussions with leaders across industries, if we were to compare, by and large the approach to doing this is not as comprehensive as it is for the management of the physical risks that people face throughout the course of conducting their work duties.”

Despite this, the legal imperative is the same, a person conducting a business or undertaking must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable the provision and maintenance of a work environment without risks to health and safety – and said health means physical and psychological.

Psychosocial risk in the workplace should be strategically managed and incorporate a robust risk management approach, similar to the management of safety risks to people – but said there are some unique challenges in this process that OHS professionals don’t traditionally have experience in navigating.

These challenges include that the risks and injuries are less obvious/visible, that the way individuals respond to a psychosocial hazard can be vastly varied, difficult to predict, and may even change over time, the complex causal nature of psychosocial risks, individuals being unaware of their own risks, or that stigma prevents people from reporting.

Cranswick said all this results in a lack of understanding of the extent of risk exposure and incomplete data inputs to reports being used by management to base decision making upon.

“Add to this constant change in the workplace imposed by variables such as the gig economy and the digitised world, which rapidly change the operating environment, the roles people are required to play, and the subsequent risk profile – managing this dynamic is unchartered territory for many OHS professionals,” said

Another challenge is that while the management of psychosocial risk falls under WHS legislation, the risk management process inevitably involves access to information and expertise that often sits within the HR function, or similar.

“So, the challenge is one of cross-divisional communication, and coordinating the right professionals at the right points in time as we prevent harm, intervene, and support recovery.”

At a layer down from here, Cranswick said there exists a capability gap in people leaders to be able to recognise and appropriately respond to mental-ill health in the workplace.

“These challenges are some examples of why organisations are finding it difficult to identify hazards, assess risk, put appropriate controls in place, and monitor and review effectiveness,” she said.

There are a number of steps organisations can take to address these issues, and as an initial step, that organisations familiarise themselves with the work-related psychological health and safety national guidance material from Safe Work Australia.

“This will be helpful in clarifying requirements and understanding what that could look like in the context of psychosocial risk,” she said.

“I would also suggest organisations seek out people with the right capability to influence the achievement of these requirements and if the appetite exists, those who can stretch beyond that into leading practice.”

Getting a better handle on exposures by creating a culture where people report is also critical, as is developing lead metrics to assist in this regard.

“Leveraging digital technology can also be helpful to capture and interpret data in a timely fashion, so that organisations can be agile in their response to changing landscapes and risks,” said.

“This can especially assist remote and geographically spread workforces.

“In fact, digital technology can be used to manage the hazard itself; for example, using technology to auto detect and disconnect aggressive customers from call centre workers, or using a heart rate monitor that identifies elevated stress levels and separates the individual from the task.

“I would encourage organisations to think about ‘above the line’ controls such as these to better reduce the risk, and to always pay serious consideration to the significant role that leaders play in moderating the equation.”

Cranswick also said that it is important for OHS leaders to be open to learning new skills and adaptable in the face of change, but to also explore how we can apply our existing skill set to this ‘emerging’ challenge.

“Take a similar lens to what has been applied for safety, and explore what considerations we should have in the context of psychosocial risk,” saidEY’s EHS maturity model has seven levers; strategy, people, leadership and governance, assurance and reporting, risk and opportunity, systems and structures, and digital technology.

“As OHS professionals, we’re doing a lot in each of those areas when it comes to safety, and we now need to ask ourselves, what do each of these levers look like when it comes to mental health?” she said.

“We can no longer shy away from the prevalence of psychosocial risk in the workplace, so let’s embrace the opportunity to work towards providing mentally healthy workplaces and strive to have a positive impact upon people and communities.”

Cranswick also observed that there will be a number of trends in this area over the coming 3-5 years and predicted there would be an increase in audits from regulators focusing on psychosocial risk, and improvement notices issued in the same way seen in the safety space.

“As ‘health’ plays catch up to ‘safety’, we’ve seen a grace period, but it’s not worth becoming complacent on this front,” she said.

“On the flipside of legal ramifications however, we can expect to see the benefits of organisations growing in experience in managing the psychosocial risks to their people and to their surrounding communities.”

Cranswick also said there would be a trend towards healthier more productive people, better workplace cultures, thriving workplace environments, increased innovation at all levels, and commercial benefits such as reduced workers compensation costs and absenteeism and attraction and retention of talent.

“While we have a way to go, along with a few other countries, Australia is considered fairly advanced in this space, so rather than merely looking to other countries to see what may lie ahead, the opportunity exists for us to pave the way and to create a real success story,” she said.

Cranswick will be speaking at 2019 Victorian Safety Symposium which will be held in Melbourne on Thursday 5 September at Victoria University, City Convention Centre, Level 12, 300 Flinders Street, Melbourne. For more information visit the conference website.