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Good Work

Editor's Note to Readers

Human Capital Matters (HCM )is the digest for leaders and practitioners with an interest in human capital and organisational capability. It seeks to provide Australian Public Service leaders and practitioners with easy access to the issues of contemporary importance in public and private sector human capital and organisational capability. It has been designed to provide interested readers with a guide to the national and international ideas that are shaping human capital thinking and practice. The inclusion of articles is aimed at stimulating creative and innovative thinking and does not in any way imply that the Australian Public Service Commission endorses service providers or policies. It is intended that the articles are accessible for the general reader, do not require subscriptions to specific sites and, where possible and appropriate, editions of HCM have been reviewed by topic specialists to provide range and currency on topical issues.

A new feature, based on feedback from 2015, is the inclusion—where possible—of additional hyperlinks/references for those with librarian support or access to specific, user-pays sites.

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This edition addresses health and wellbeing in the workplace and has been titled 'good work' for all the implications suggested by such a title.

In June 2015 HCM provided some readings about 'climate and culture'. One of those was Dollard and colleagues' work, published in 2012 through Safe Work Australia, on The Australian Workplace Barometer, a report on psychosocial safety climate and worker health in Australia. In summary Dollard found that in workplaces where psychosocial safety climate (PSC) is high, managers are aware of risk factors and actively work to ensure that demands and resources are balanced. Good or 'high PSC' is said to moderate the negative effects of psychosocial hazards (e.g., bullying and lack of control) on employee health and productivity and consequently provide for 'good work' in all its implications. Dollard and colleagues established that systematic measurement of the PSC could predict work conditions, worker health and engagement.

This edition of HCM is a review of more recent material on current trends in providing for 'good work' and the implications for employee and organisational health and wellbeing. The results from the 2015 APS Employee Census report on PSC are also included as indicators of the benefits of ensuring 'good work'.

The articles for this edition are:

The first article is Peter Cotton's review of key trends in workplace psychological health and wellbeing. He identifies existing deficiencies and addresses key challenges for improving psychological health in the workplace.
The second article from the APSC provides the guidance provided to APS agencies about managing employee health and well-being. This includes the business case, the legislation, useful tools and templates.
The third article provides the results from the 2014-15 State of the Service APS Employee Census on Psychosocial Safety Climate (PSC).
The fourth article is from the Australian Psychological Society's InPsych magazine and outlines an initiative by the Australian Psychological Society called the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program: Helping organisations work better in which organisations seek recognition for their efforts in developing and sustaining healthy workplaces. It is included because the guidelines for entry might provide useful guidelines for how to construct a healthy workplace.
The fifth article provides a link to beyondblue's Heads up program aimed specifically at educating both supervisors and employees about how to deal effectively with workplace stressors.
The final article is the introduction to a new ACT Government initiative for healthier work. This is a free service for (primarily small) businesses and other entities (including Commonwealth agencies) in Canberra. The link provides case-studies based on ACT businesses.

Cotton, P. (2014) Workplace psychological health and wellbeing: an overview of key trends. InPsych, Volume 36, Issue 6 Australian Psychological Society, December

Cotton begins by acknowledging the success of recent efforts to increase awareness about workplace psychological health and wellbeing. He acknowledges also that a good work environment (high psychosocial work quality, positive organisational climate) provides a core protective role for employees, moderating the effects of psychological and social (psychosocial) hazards.

The gaps in current practices that Cotton identifies are:

  • Inadequate focus on prevention
  • Unrealised early intervention potential
  • Avoidant responses by managers in responding to and managing at risk employees
  • Tendency to view workplace psychological health and wellbeing initiatives as extraneous to core business
  • A 'hands off' approach in return-to-work programs and treatment where psychological health issues are involved, as compared with physical injuries
  • Passive medical management and highly variable quality of psychological interventions provided for work-related psychological health problems, ultimately contributing towards excessive levels of 'medically unnecessary disability' and adding to the national social welfare burden

While mental health problems are only one type of risk within a broad range of organisational people risks, they are becoming increasingly prominent within the APS. Cotton attempts to address some of the gaps he has identified by examining his concerns. Hopefully the following paragraphs provide a useful summary of Cotton's insights.


Cotton makes the following points:

  • The value of legislation lies in ensuring that employers do not emphasise performance to the detriment of wellbeing
  • There are limits in adopting a medical model as it fails to recognise the crucial roles of organisational climate and behaviour and how organisations actually function
  • There is benefit in building positive and protective factors into the workforce and embedding the management of employee mental health in a broader focus on employee wellbeing
  • Most prevention strategies are aimed at the employee. Interventions can also be at the organisational level, not least of which are building core people management skills and implementing overarching wellbeing frameworks that integrate initiatives.

Early workplace intervention

Mental health literacy is valuable for organisations in helping them discern early warning signs—usually about six months before any claim is made—and to respond constructively. This includes managers providing timely feedback rather than waiting until a formal performance review and facilitating a 'climate for wellbeing' (e.g., messaging in team meetings about the importance of wellbeing and encouraging early reporting, reminding staff about available support resources and appropriate role modelling).

Other early interventions being trialled include conciliation or coaching with the aim of repairing relationships before they go too far astray, for example implementing five informal conversations before a formal appraisal is enacted. The Queensland Resolve at Work initiative—which involves a multi-disciplinary panel of providers of a range of prevention and wellbeing services—was reported as having an 8:1 cost-benefit ratio in which 'for every dollar spent there are savings around eight dollars in reduced psychological injury costs, absenteeism and improved performance'.

E-mental health is also recognised for the support it provides to those looking for information and advice perhaps in the first instance or perhaps instead of traditional services.

Management and treatment

Cotton differentiates management into two areas: secondary (post-claim) early intervention, and tertiary management. He notes that the secondary stage may sometimes be better served by human resources interventions such as vocational assessment and conflict resolution to deal with job disgruntlement, poor job fit and poor working relationships, reportedly the cause of at least a third of claims.

In terms of tertiary management, Cotton notes that employees with otherwise similar profiles typically have worse health and return-to-work outcomes if they have a compensation claim. He reports that

There are some ongoing system level challenges (i.e., 'black flags') across different jurisdictions in terms of time taken for claim determination, the polarisation that often occurs when claimants read their employer statement, the process of claims administration, and unwitting incentives in some schemes for individuals to maintain their claim. This is a vulnerable population, so the nature of treatment provided to injured employees needs to be of a very particular type and structure

In order to achieve better outcomes for injured employees a National Clinical Framework evolved in 2012 from separate physical and mental health frameworks to better inform services provided to injured employees. One key development is the recognition of the therapeutic role of work and the need to integrate an expectation of returning to work into the employee's treatment regime (where this is realistic). Cotton suggests that, regardless of the nature of the injuries and ongoing vulnerabilities, employees '... should still be able to, at least initially, access work-focussed treatment that is aligned with the National Clinical Framework and to be triaged out, if necessary ...'

'Fit Certificates', which require GPs to certify what an employee can do, were being trialled in WA, ACT and Victoria at the end of 2014.

Cotton concludes by noting the role of personality in treatment planning and notes that specialised interventions are sometimes required for some personalities.

Dr Peter Cotton, FAPS, private Practice and InsightSRC; Workplace Mental health Advisor with Superfriend and ComCare Centre for Excellence in Mental health and Wellbeing at Work; and member, beyondblue Expert Advisory Group on Mental Health at Work

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Australian Public Service Commission (2015) The business case for improving workplace health and wellbeing. Australian Government

The APSC puts the case for adapting to changing demographics and workforce expectations to 'reshape our perceptions about health, wellbeing and capability at work'. The guide baldly states the statistics driving the need for change: the incidence rates of common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression; the four million Australians with a physical disability; and the onset, particularly with an ageing population, of chronic diseases such as arthritis and diabetes. As well, legislation (the Work Health and Safety Act 2011) underscores the need for agencies to exercise 'duty of care' for employees and where needed, to direct an employee to attend a medical examination (Regulation 9.3(3) of Public Service Regulations, 1999), noting that employee also has a 'right of review' under the Public Service Act 1999.

It is also acknowledged that 'work is good for people' for a variety of reasons including economic and societal ones.

This publication provides: guidance for managers; templates for and descriptions of health assessments and the process; expected outcomes; and, useful tools for APS agencies.

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Australian Public Service Commission (2015) Psychosocial safety climate in the APS, Results from the 2014-15 State of the Service report. Australian Government

One headline result from the census in 2015 is that two thirds of employees believe that their agency genuinely cares about their health and wellbeing. A healthy workplace, one that attends to the wellbeing of its employees, is seen to contribute positively to critical organisational markers such as absence rates and workplace injuries.

Despite the high level of perceived organisational care in the APS, workplace injuries—particularly psychological injuries— continue to increase in the APS. This is of sufficient concern for the APS that a Deputy Secretary working group has been created to work on managing compensation by way of reducing the incidence of psychological injuries and developing agency-level benchmarks to monitor progress towards a safer workplace.

The results from the 2014-15 APS Employee Census provide details of employees' perceptions about key PSC markers: demand and control, senior leaders and immediate supervisors' impact on workplace health and safety and sick leave.

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The Australian Psychological Society (2014), APS Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program: helping organisations work better. InPsych, Volume 36, Issue 6 Australian Psychological Society, December

This initiative started with the premise that work plays a critical role in psychological health. It aimed to raise awareness about the six critical workplace factors that are linked to positive wellbeing outcomes for employees: supportive leadership; employee engagement; role clarity; learning, development and growth opportunities; appraisal and recognition; and, work-life balance.

The goal was to encourage preventive rather than treatment strategies with a view to improved organisational performance outcomes.

By 2016 the initiative has become an awards-based program (email correspondence from the Australian Psychological Society dated 24 March 2016). Workplace Health and Wellbeing is one category for which organisations can apply for an award in recognition of their significant improvements in the psychological health and well-being of the workforce.

As the awards are sponsored by the Australian Psychological Society, the utilisation of psychological knowledge is one important criterion. The others are innovation, impact and sustainability. Further information about the awards can be found on the following link: APS workplace excellence awards application guidelines.

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Beyondblue Heads up: the mentally healthy workplace alliance [accessed 24 March 2016]

This website provides a treasure trove of tips and data about the business case for and the how-to details to help create a mentally healthy workplace. Key tabs across the website are: creating a mentally healthy workplace, taking care of yourself at work, supporting others in the workplace, rights and responsibilities and training and resources.

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ACT Government. Healthier work: helping people and business thrive, Case Studies 2014-15

Healthier Work is a free ACT government service under the Healthy Weight Initiative established to support employers to develop health and wellbeing initiatives within their workplace. Healthier Work falls under Access Canberra which is a new agency that aims to better support and connect the community with ACT Government services.

Healthier Work assists workplaces to develop and implement programs, policies and practices that lead to healthier workplaces and ongoing employee healthy lifestyle changes, through a range of free resources and support services.

The benefits to employers are seen to be increased worker morale and engagement, reduced workplace injuries and associated expenses, increased attraction and retention of staff, and improved corporate image.

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Additional articles of interest but which require payment to access content:

Psychosocial safety climate, psychosocial and physical factors in the aetiology of musculoskeletal disorder symptoms and workplace injury compensation claims

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Last reviewed: 
6 June 2018