Managing work-based risks to mental health is a responsibility under federal law. Managers need to ensure work design and management practices do not harm employees’ mental health and well-being.
Why it matters
Risks to mental health can arise out of the nature of work. This includes customer related stress, remote work, shift work and exposure to traumatic events.
Risks can also arise out of the context of work including poor team climate and poor quality people management practices such as lack of role clarity, poorly managed change, a breakdown in relationships and high work pressure and demands.
When risks to mental health are not addressed it can cause mental ill health, have an impact on employees and their families, and lead to workers’ compensation claims. It can also adversely affect team relations and productivity, absenteeism, employee turnover, accidents, and customer and client complaints.1
Managers have an important role in addressing work risks to mental health in the way they design and manage work, provide supportive leadership and foster an inclusive culture. Good work design can eliminate or minimise the major psychosocial hazards and risks associated with work. This will help to keep employees healthy and safe at work and create flourishing and engaged teams.
‘Healthy and safe by design’ is one of the key action areas as part of Safe Work Australia’s national Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-20222 . The Government needs lead by example in fostering healthy, safe and productive working lives through the design and management of work.
Work Health and Safety Act 2011
- APS agencies have an obligation to ensure the health and safety of workers.
- Health is defined as physical and psychological health.
- Officers must exercise due diligence to ensure that their agency complies with its duties under the Act.
- While at work, workers must take reasonable care for their own health and safety.
How it’s done
Steps to manage risks to mental health and prevent psychological injury
Step 1. What is important?
Leadership awareness, culture and commitment; management systems for monitoring organisational health; understanding your team and their work; and engaging employees in maintaining safe and healthy workplaces.
Step 2. Identify sources of potential harm
This may arise from the nature or content of the work (such as customer related stress, aggression, remote work, shift work, exposure to traumatic events) or the context of the work (such as poor work team climate, lack of clarity, poorly managed change and worker co-relations).
Step 3. Assess the risk
Analyse organisational and team information to understand the nature, extent and causes of potential harm. This process needs to take into account risks and hazards that may be present across all aspects of work for example management practices, schedules and workstation design.
Step 4. Consult with employees to develop and implement a plan to
- Address the workplace factors that are risks of psychological injury
- Make reasonable adjustments to support safe work performance.
Step 5. Monitor and review
Stating clear program objectives, setting targets and performance indicators, monitoring and reviewing the program’s implementation, reviewing the effectiveness of the program and using the review findings to inform refinements and improvements.
Source: Comcare publication, Working Well: An organisational approach to preventing psychological injury, page 17.
Take a systematic approach
Work with your employees and human resources team to identify and manage the individual, team and organisational risks to mental health.
Employee-focussed approaches such as counselling, relaxation techniques and stress management training can help employees to develop greater resilience. However, approaches also need to address the team and organisational risks to mental health. A comprehensive approach to addressing risks will be more effective than approaches that only focus on an individual’s ability to manage stress.3
Identify potential sources of harm
Risks to mental health are not recognised as easily as risks to physical injury. Work with your human resources team and use the results of employee surveys, absence data, grievances, focus groups, interviews and discussions with your employees to help you to identify risks.
Consultation with employees is critical to understand sources of work related stress and how they are impacting on the team. Most successful and cost-effective solutions are developed from within an organisation or team together with employees. This can be done through focus groups or other forms of consultation.4
Consultation with employees is required when identifying hazards, assessing risks and deciding on measures to control those risks.5
Better practice - an organisational approach
The demands of people's jobs (relating to workload, work patterns, working environment).
The support provided by the organisation, lin emanagement and colleagues.
Extent to which people understand their role in the organisation and to not have conflicting roles.
How much control (or how much say) people have in the way they do their work.
Relationships at work.
How organisational change is managed and communicated.
* Key referral areas
The United Kingdom Civil Service Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has identified six potential sources of harm related to the design and management of work that, if not managed well, can lead to mental ill health (refer to the diagram ‘What is important’ on this information sheet).6 This model has been adopted by both Comcare and the Australian Public Service Commission and is used for reporting purposes in the Commission’s State of the Service Report.
You also need to consider risks that arise from the characteristics and nature of the work. For example, is the work customer-related, does it involve shift work, does it involve physical isolation, does it lack variety or is it time paced?
Allow for individual differences
Different employees may respond differently to the same working environment and management style. It is important to acknowledge and respond to differences in employees rather than conclude that a problem is the individual’s.7
It is important to know your team, how they are coping with the work and what measures will help them to be safe and productive at work. Individual susceptibility will influence how people respond to work experiences and pressures. The personal resources that people have to manage work pressures are not static and vary over time depending on an individual’s life pressures, including circumstances outside of work.8
Ensure solutions are developed in consultation with the employee and are specific to your organisation and the context of your team. Be guided by research, case studies and other information on the most effective approaches to prevent harm to mental health.
- People @ Work psychosocial risk assessment process
- HSE Management Standards on Stress
- HSE Risk Management
- Safe Work Australia Codes of Practice:
- Managing the Work Environment and Facilities
- How to Manage Work Health and Safety Risk
- Comcare publication, Working Well: An organisational approach to preventing psychological injury
- Leadership, health and safety culture: What part do managers play?
- Mental Health Commission of Canada – Psychological Health and Safety – An action guide for employers
- Comcare publication, Prevention and Management of Customer Aggression – A Guide for Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking
- Encourage Support Act
- Safe Work Australia Code of Practice:
- Work Health and Safety Consultation, Co-operation and co-ordination. How to Manage Work Health and Safety Risks.
Other relevant information sheets:
1 Cotton, P & Hart, PM 2003, ‘Occupational Wellbeing and Performance: a Review of Organisational Health Research’, Australian Psychologist, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 118-127; and Cotton, P 2004, ‘Developing an Optimal Organisational Climate: Towards Australia’s Safest Workplaces II Conference Paper’, Canberra; cited in Comcare 2008, Working Well: An organisational approach to preventing psychological injury, Comcare, Canberra, p. 10.
2 Safe Work Australia, 2012, Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022.
3 Giga, S, Noblet, A, Faragher, B, & Cooper, C 2003, ‘The UK Perspective: A Review of Research on Organisational Stress Management Interventions’, Australian Psychologist, vol. 38, no. 2, pp.158-164; cited in Comcare op. cit., p. 16.
4 Comcare op. cit., p. 20.
5 Safe Work Australia 2011, Code of Practice: Work Health and Safety Consultation, Co-operation and Co-ordination, SWA, Canberra, p. 5.
7 Kendal,l E, Murphy, P, O’Neill, V, & Bursnall, S 2000, Occupational Stress: Factors that contribute to its occurrence and effective management: A report to the workers’ compensation and rehabilitation commission of Western Australia, Centre for Human Services, Griffith University, pp. 57-60; cited in Comcare op. cit., p. 15.
8 Comcare op. cit., p. 14.