SafeWork NSW have recently developed a Code of Practice to provide practical guidance on how to manage psychosocial hazards and risks at work. Mental Health awareness has become more prominent and workplaces need to address the importance of valuing psychological health as much as physical health.
Why is there a Code?
It is estimated that approximately 45% of Australians aged between 16 – 85 years old experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.1 Across all industries in Australia, it is estimated mental health conditions costs workplaces approximately $11 billion per year comprising of $4.7 billion in absenteeism, $6.1 billion in presenteeism and $146 million in compensation claims.2
Approximately 9 in 10 Australian employees believe a mentally healthy workplace is important, yet approximately only half Australian employees believe their workplace is mentally healthy.3 This demonstrates a gap between how Australian employees recognise the importance of mental health, and what their workplace is doing about it.
SafeWork NSW have recently developed a Code of Practice: Managing psychosocial hazards at work (the Code) to clarify the business’ responsibilities and obligations with relation to addressing hazards which may potentially cause psychological or physical harm.
The Work, Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) (WHS Act) outlines that a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) or the employer, has a duty to ensure control measures are taken to eliminate or minimise the health and safety hazards and risks in the workplace or place where the work is carried out. Applying the Code will assist employers and PCBU’s discharge those obligations.
What is the Code?
The Code provides what the psychosocial hazards are in the workplace, and practical steps in addressing the hazards. As an approved Code under s 274 of the WHS Act, it provides guidance on how to achieve compliance with the legislation.
The Courts may rely on Codes of Practice as evidence of what is known about a hazard(s), and to assist in determining what is considered “reasonably practicable” to address it. Further a SafeWork inspector may refer to a Code of Practice when issuing an improvement or prohibition notice. Despite a Code of Practice not being laws and it does not replace the WHS legislation, it is important that a PCBU or employers are aware of these codes and understand what their obligations and responsibilities are.
What is a psychosocial hazard?
A psychosocial hazard at work includes factors or situations which may cause stress as a response, and as a result cause psychological or physical harm. As set out in the Code, common psychosocial hazards include:
- High job demands or work overloads, including where there are unachievable deadlines or insufficient resources, unpredictable shifts or hours of work which does not allow workers with enough time to recover;
- Role underload where there are sustained low efforts, or highly repetitive or monotonous tasks;
- Exposure to traumatic events and this may be common for emergency responders or health care workers, rape crisis and child protection workers, experiencing or witnessing a serious injury or fatality;
- Conflicting or poor workplace relationships between workers and their supervisors;
- Poor support from supervisors;
- Workplace violence;
- Sexual harassment;
- Remote or isolated work; and
- Poor organisational change consultation.
The examples of some of the psychosocial hazards present in the workplace above demonstrate the external factors that may cause harm. There may be individual factors that may contribute or cause individuals to perceive the psychosocial hazards differently. For instance, workers who are new to the industry, or have experienced a work-related injury, may respond differently to a worker who is more experienced or has not experienced a work-related injury in the same circumstance.
However, the above examples should be distinguished from a “reasonable management action”.4 A reasonable and lawful management action may be distressing and uncomfortable for some workers. However, it is a method for managers, supervisors and employers to provide feedback and guidance or direction as to how work is done, manage inappropriate behaviour and disagreements, take disciplinary action including termination of employment then it will likely be reasonable.
Applying the appropriate control measures to minimise the risk of psychological and physical harm may vary across different workplaces and different industries. Nevertheless, employers and PCBU’s in NSW should review the Code and if in doubt seek advice.
Regardless of the industry and regardless of the stage in the process, consultation with workers/employees is paramount in addressing any potential risks or issues. Consultations with workers/employees are an effective starting point in identifying what psychosocial hazards may be present in the workplace. Such consultations with employees should be coupled with an organisational policy or a safe system of work which addresses processes of how work should be conducted and where to seek help.
Having appropriate policies that outline what psychosocial hazards are present and the steps to manage the hazards through a work design could be an effective way to demonstrate compliance.
 ABS, 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, Table 1, 23 October 2008, available https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/mental-health/national-survey-mental-health-and-wellbeing-summary-results/2007, accessed 7 June 2021.
 PwC (2014) ‘Creating a mentally healthy workplace: return on investment analysis’. Accessed online from http://www.headsup.org.au/docs/default-source/resources/beyondblue_workplaceroi_finalreport_ may-2014.pdf
 TNS Social Research (2014) State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia, available https://www.headsup.org.au/docs/default-source/resources/bl1270-report---tns-the-state-of-mental-health-in-australian-workplaces-hr.pdf?sfvrsn=8, accessed 7 June 2021.
 Fair Work Commission (2019) What does ‘Reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner’ mean? https://www.fwc.gov.au/anti-bullying-benchbook/when-worker-bullied-at-work/reasonable-management-action#field-content-0-heading, accessed 7 June 2021.