Understanding Workplace Risks to Psychological Health

The quality and conditions of work can impact our psychological health

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as a ‘state of wellbeing in which a person realises their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to their community’. The factors that impact one’s psychological health are far-reaching and beyond just the workplace, however, we know that work has the potential to either positively or negatively contribute to our level of psychological health as an individual. The workplace, therefore, is a setting that plays an important role, and hence the need to consider psychological health.

All workplaces contain hazards, some of which may be physical hazards and some of which may be psychological or psychosocial hazards. There are many different definitions of psychological/psychosocial hazards, but the simplest way to look at it is any aspect in the design or management of work that may have the potential to cause psychological harm. For example, if we are constantly exposed to bullying and harassment or our workload exceeds our capabilities over a long period of time (hazards) we may experience a psychological/psychiatric condition or illness (harm).

So based on our understanding that being employed has psychological health benefits, but the quality of work and conditions of work can determine our level of psychological health while at work, we must consider the factors that can either protect our psychological health or be a risk to our psychological health. These are known as psychosocial risk and protective factors. These factors if present and positive or negative can directly impact our work experience and our psychological health.

Some of the most commonly identified factors that may be considered risks or hazards to our psychological health at work include;

Job control: the level of control we have over our job, including how or when a job is done.

Job demands: the effort we are required to put into our job, either low or high, including work hours, workload, level of attention, emotional effort, shift work etc.

Level of support: emotional or practical support, information, training, and resources to do our job properly.

Organisational change management: how change is managed and communicated in the workplace as well as the frequency and level of disruption of change.

Organisational justice: fairness and equality inclusive of supporting policies and processes that are applied consistently.

Reward and recognition: level of feedback, the reward for effort, and opportunities for development.

Role clarity: level of certainty about our job role, responsibilities, and a clear understanding of what is required of us to meet our job requirements.

Workplace relationships: quality of workplace relationships, inclusive of interpersonal conflict, workplace civility, bullying, harassment & discrimination.

Environmental conditions: quality of the working environment including noise, temperature, air quality, etc

Remote or isolated work: work at locations where access to resources and communications is difficult and travel times might be lengthy, or where there are no or few other people around.

Exposure to trauma: incidents that can cause fear and distress including physical and verbal abuse, the threat of or actual harm, vicarious trauma, etc

Violence and aggression: incidents in which a person is abused, threatened, or assaulted.

Bullying and harassment: being bullied, harassed, or discriminated against, including sexual harassment.

Prevention is better than cure

Having a clear understanding of psychological or psychosocial hazards is critical and goes a long way toward creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. Addressing these risks and hazards is even more critical and in the case of creating a psychologically healthy workplace, prevention is better than cure. Employers should prioritise actions that mitigate these risks, rather than intervening once the damage has already been done – in other words, fix the things that break your people, don’t fix them once they are broken.

Once a mental illness or condition has been caused or made worse by the workplace the impact on the person and the workplace can be costly. Relative to other injuries, mental injuries can be some of the costliest, which is largely due to the longer duration of claims. In Victoria, the average duration of a claim for mental injury was 37.5 weeks in 2020. This is more than double the average duration for other injuries. According to SafeWork Australia, the typical time off work for mental injury spans approximately 15.3 weeks compared to an average of 5.5 for all other claims. In 2021, the average cost of a mental injury claim was approximately $220,000. This cost has more than doubled over the last decade.

Assessing psychological risk in your workplace

The risks that exist in the workplace are unique to every individual workplace, and they may also change over time. It is therefore important that a proper assessment is undertaken to understand the risks that are present and relevant right now in order to mitigate them, account for them, and design a tailored approach to creating a psychologically healthy workplace.

 

There are many ways to assess psychological risk, depending on the size of your workforce the best-suited approach may differ, however, there are some key considerations to think about.

1. What does the research say?

Having a good understanding of the research that exists around psychological/psychosocial risk is a great place to start. Above we have listed the most common psychosocial risks as referenced by SafeWork Australia, understanding these and doing a basic assessment of the risks that may apply to your workplace and any gaps that may exist is a good first step to get a basic understanding of where you may need to intervene.

2. What data does your workplace already have?

Most workplaces have a range of data sources that can tell a really good story about the psychological health and safety of the workplace. Things like employee engagement surveys, wellbeing surveys, workers compensation data, income protection data, incident reports, health and safety data, employee assistance program data, and exit interview information can all provide valuable information about some of the most common risks and if they are present within your workplace. Assessing this information can be challenging, however, getting help from a qualified professional can assist in interpreting the information and setting you on the right track.

3. What systems do you have in place?

If you have systems and processes in place to collect data on psychological risk or incidents this is great. Most workplaces track physical injuries and incidents really well, these same systems and programs can be used to track psychological injuries and incidents and can provide valuable information and trends on what’s happening in your workplace.

4. Do you need more information?

You may find that you need more information as what you currently have in place is not telling the whole story. Consideration of a wellbeing survey inclusive of information about psychological risk may be a great place to start and give valuable information about the risks present straight from the horse’s mouth. Conducting focus groups with your staff about psychological risks in the workplace may also fill some of the gaps.

5. Do you need external expertise?

If you are new to the space of psychological health and safety in the workplace gaining help from specialists or external experts could be really helpful. At Aspect Group we specialise in the identification and assessment of psychological risk and can assist in completing an audit of your workplace as well as creating a thorough psychological health and safety strategy.

To learn more about some of the important steps in creating a psychologically healthy workplace read part 3 in this series – 7 tips to get you started on creating a psychologically healthy workplace.