Understanding Mental Health At Work As A Safety Issue

Over the past few years, we’ve had the privilege of speaking with hundreds of employers about their workplace mental health programs.

While workplace safety is a specialist area, addressing complex organisational needs, people at all levels within an organisation are able to immediately address physical safety issues in their workplaces. 

If a computer cord was lying across a pathway and could easily be tripped over. Most people would move the cord, tape it down, or report it to the relevant person to ensure it is dealt with quickly and efficiently. 

If we consider this cord in the pathway in terms of a safety issue, we have applied 4 key safety elements to address it: 

  • Identify the Risk or the Hazard – cord in pathway 
  • Assess and Prioritise the Risk – someone could trip. Needs to address immediately 
  • Control the Risk – remove the cord, tape it down, block off the pathway 
  • Review the Controls – is what we have done with the cord in the pathway the best to control it.  If we have moved the cord, will it be back there tomorrow? If we have taped it down, is it causing any other issues? 

Addressing this risk of the cord in the pathway would be deemed by many as common sense. Most Australian workplaces are now adept at dealing with physical risk. 

However, an ‘unhealthy’ work environment can cause considerable stress and exacerbate an existing employee mental health condition, or contribute to the development of a mental illness. So our next challenge is to be able to identify and address psychosocial workplace risks. 

When the word ‘psychosocial’ arises in conversations, with the exception of OHS or HSE professionals, often eyes will glaze over and there seems to be limited understanding of what that term means. “Psychosocial hazards” are those hazards that impact an employee’s mental health and wellbeing. 

Using the same four steps that are applied to physical risks in the workplace, let’s address a psychosocial risk such as lack of role clarity, which would be addressed by an employee’s line manager in many cases: 

  • Identify the risk or hazard – Lack of role clarity 
  • Assess and prioritise the risk – The stress of not understanding what is required in an employee’s daily job, can be significant.  A line manager may prioritise this as a high priority to be addressed, to prevent an employee’s stress levels from rising. 
  • Control the risk – Work with human resources and the employee to develop a position description for the employee’s role which clearly identifies what is required and therefore, indicates role boundaries. 
  • Review the Controls – Check in with the employee a couple of weeks after the new position description is in place to see how the role clarification was supporting them and to determine if the position description might require further refining or changing. 

There are many online resources that can support us to address workplace psychosocial risk, SafeWork Australia and the Human Rights Commission are good places to start. Keep the Person at the Centre of the Conversation 

Finally, whether we are identifying risks at an organisational level or for a single employee’s role, we need to involve our employees and ask the people who carry out the duties for their input on any potential risks or hazards, whether they are physical or psychosocial. 

We need to move away from a “check-list” style of managing workplace strategies for mental health and be willing to engage in ongoing conversations with our people. 

Just as we wouldn’t give the cord in the pathway a second thought, we need to become more comfortable and skilled in addressing psychosocial risks at work so that our workplaces provide a safe and healthy environment for everyone.