Go to top of page

How the workplace affects employee health and wellbeing

The most direct effect that workplaces have on employee health and wellbeing is through the occurrence of injuries or illness due to work. The nature of the workplace significantly affects the types of risks involved. Workplaces with a substantial degree of physical work (for example, those that involve lifting or carrying) pose different risks to workplaces where demands are more likely to be mental or emotional (for example, those that involve policy work) or where the amount of contact with clients is significant. While the type of work affects the injury risks in a workplace, some characteristics common to all workplaces influence the workplace health risks to employees.

Workplace illness and injury

The nature of the workplace risks in the APS is different from those in other sectors, for example, manufacturing or agriculture, but risks exist nonetheless.

Injury claim data from Comcare on 35 APS agencies each with more than 500 employees—totalling almost 140,000 employees—shows that in the year to July 2013, injury claim rates ranged from just under two to almost 25 claims accepted per 1,000 employees.7 The average agency rate of claims was just over 10 claims accepted per 1,000 employees. This shows an increase over previous years when analysis showed a similarly wide range of claims, but average claim rates of 7.0 and 6.5 per 1,000 for 2010–11 and 2011–12 respectively.

Injury reporting and subsequent claims serve two purposes: first, they allow an employee to make a claim for support for an injury that has occurred in the course of their duties; and second, they allow the workplace to better understand the risks inherent in their workplace and be better placed to apply strategies that help maintain the health and effectiveness of the workforce. Data from the employee census indicate that of the employees who experienced an injury or illness due to work, only one in eight (12%) submitted a claim for compensation. Of the employees who reported they had submitted a claim for compensation, 74% reported the claim was accepted, while another 19% were not sure and/or the claim had not yet been finalised. The top five reasons for not submitting a claim were:

  • minor injury only, not considered necessary (29%)
  • negative impact on current or future employment (27%)
  • other (22%)
  • did not think I would be eligible for worker's compensation (20%)
  • inconvenient/required too much effort or paperwork (18%).

As a condition of their employment in the APS, employees can make a claim for any illness or injury sustained at work. To have more than one-quarter of employees who may be eligible report they did not apply because of concerns about the impact on their future employment suggests there are some cultural issues within the APS regarding being ill or injured at work. Interestingly, the view there would be a negative impact on future employment as a result of a claim was distributed relatively evenly across APS 1–6 and Executive Level classifications, but Senior Executive Service employees were less likely to cite this reason for not making a claim.

More than one in six employees who indicated injury or illness due to work did not lodge a claim because it was too inconvenient or required too much paperwork, suggesting there may be procedural factors inhibiting the ability of the APS to monitor the risks to its workforce and respond appropriately. While these responses were also relatively evenly distributed across the classification levels, Executive Level employees were more likely to cite this as a reason for not putting in a claim than employees at other classification levels.

While workplace injuries have a direct effect on the health component of employee health and wellbeing, they also have an effect on the wellbeing component. Data from the employee census shows employees who reported they were injured or became ill due to work were less positive across a range of attitudinal measures (including those relating to job satisfaction and work conditions) that can be seen to reflect an employee's sense of wellbeing at work. Figures 4.1 and 4.2 show these results.

As can be seen from Figure 4.1, employees who reported they were injured or became ill due to work were substantially less positive than other employees in relation to measures associated with job satisfaction, including their perceptions of workplace autonomy, feelings of personal accomplishment at work, the opportunity to use their skills and enjoyment in their current job.

Figure 4.1 The relationship between workplace injury and job satisfaction, 2013

Source: Employee census


Similarly, employees who reported they were injured or became ill due to work were less positive than other employees on measures relating to workplace conditions, including remuneration, non-monetary employment conditions and access to and use of flexible work arrangements.

Figure 4.2 The relationship between workplace injury and workplace conditions, 2013

Source: Employee census

The nature of the workplace

Research into the impact of the workplace on employee health and wellbeing demonstrates that the sense of control employees have over their work, along with the demands of the workplace, combine to affect the likelihood of job strain and subsequently the likelihood of workplace stress.8 This job-strain model, first proposed in 1979, suggests that the relationship between two factors—job demand and employee control9—is complex but can be somewhat simplified by combining types of job demand (high demand versus low demand) with combinations of employee control (high control versus low control). These combinations resulted in the identification of the following categories of workplaces10:

  • active—high demand and high control workplaces characterised by the ‘matching’ of employee skills and control with the challenges associated with fast-paced workplaces and associated with high levels of learning
  • passive—low demand and low control workplaces characterised by a general passiveness in the workforce and associated with a general decline in overall problem-solving activity
  • low strain—low demand and high control workplaces characterised by low job-strain and associated with moderate levels of learning
  • high strain—high demand and low control workplaces characterised by high job strain and associated with a higher chance of negative employee health outcomes.

This research provides a framework for understanding the nature of APS workplaces in relation to job demand and employee control. Figure 4.3 shows the perceptions of employees in relation to their sense of job demand and control across agency functional clusters. As can be seen, employees from policy and larger operational agencies reported similar levels of workplace demand, however, employees from policy agencies reported higher levels of control. A similar relationship can be seen for employees from regulatory and specialist agencies where both reported similar levels of demand, but employees in specialist agencies reported much higher levels of control.

Figure 4.3 Workplace demands and control by agency cluster, 2013

Source: Employee census


A number of factors influence whether an employee becomes injured or ill due to work and, furthermore, whether they submit a claim for injury or illness. Claim-rate data from Comcare, however, suggests that the perceived demands placed on APS employees and their capacity to exert some control in the workplace is reflected to some degree in the injury claim rates experienced in agency clusters:

  • larger operational—18.74 claims per 1,000 employees
  • smaller operational—13.22 claims per 1,000 employees
  • specialist—12.42 claims per 1,000 employees
  • policy—11.73 claims per 1,000 employees
  • regulatory—9.41 claims per 1,000 employees.

Employee census data suggests a relationship between employee perceptions of job demand and control and attitudes across a range of workplace measures. As Figure 4.4 shows, employees who experienced high job demands were less likely to be satisfied with work conditions and were less positive on measures relating to job satisfaction. Conversely, employees who experienced high levels of workplace autonomy were more likely to be satisfied with their work conditions and were more positive on measures relating to job satisfaction (Figure 4.5). Additionally, figures 4.4 and 4.5 demonstrate that changes in employee perceptions of control are more powerful in their impact on measures of job satisfaction than changes in perceptions of workplace demand. This result is less obvious for measures of work conditions where changes in employee perceptions of both demand and control have a substantial impact on job satisfaction and work conditions.

Together these results provide agencies with a framework for understanding how employee control and job demand may work together to have an impact on employee attitudes and feelings of wellbeing at work. It is important, however, to remain cognisant that the demand and control data presented here is ‘point-in-time’ data collected as part of a broader employee attitude survey. It is likely that employee perceptions of workplace demand and control will fluctuate over time and within a workplace, reflecting the natural ebb and flow of workloads and priorities. As such, the conclusions drawn should be interpreted with caution.

Figure 4.4 The relationship between workplace demands and measures of job satisfaction and work conditions, 2013

Source: Employee census


Figure 4.5 The relationship between workplace control and measures of job satisfaction and work conditions, 2013

Source: Employee census


The impact of the nature of the workplace on employee health has been operationalised in a public sector environment through the work of the Health and Safety Executive of the United Kingdom Civil Service in their management-standards approach to work stress.11 This work has been identified by Comcare as a useful model for managers and human resource practitioners to adopt in the APS context.12

Concerns about the impact of stress in the APS workplace have existed for some time. This concern has been shared internationally13 and in the private sector. The Health and Safety Executive work has been identified as a useful model for APS managers. Recent collaborative work led by the Australian Public Service Commission (the Commission) has seen the development of a set of guidelines for managers on how to deal with workplace mental health issues.14

Workplace behaviour as a health and wellbeing risk

One of the more pernicious health risks in the modern workplace is bullying and harassment and workplace incivility more broadly. Over the past 10 years, employee census (and previously employee survey) results for the question: During the last 12 months have you been subject to harassment or bullying in your workplace?, have varied between 15% and 18%.15 In 2013, it was 16%, down from 17% in 2012. Although this rate is lower than it is in some other jurisdictions (in New South Wales almost one-third of state government employees report experiencing bullying in the workplace16), it still indicates that one in six APS employees feel they have been bullied or harassed in the workplace this year. Chapter 3 discusses workplace bullying and harassment in more detail.

Perceived bullying and harassment can take many forms. Of employee census respondents who believed they had experienced bullying or harassment, the two most common forms of behaviour reported were verbal abuse and inappropriate application of work policies. Employee census respondents most commonly reported that the behaviour came from someone more senior (other than their supervisor) (30%), their supervisor (26%) and/or a co-worker (26%).17

An emerging issue is cyber-bullying. In an APS context, cyber-bullying refers to the online harassment of APS employees by clients or members of the public. While the incidence of cyber-bullying is currently low relative to other forms of bullying and harassment (2% of employee census respondents reported experiencing this behaviour in 2013), the impacts it causes are no less severe. The impact of increased social media use on incidence of cyber-bullying is yet unknown and the Commission is working with agencies to develop guidance to support agencies and employees in dealing with this behaviour.

Whether it is perception or reality, being bullied has a significant impact on employees. Figure 4.6 shows employees who reported they had experienced bullying or harassment had lower levels of engagement than other employees. Additionally, employees who reported experiencing bullying or harassment in the workplace were more than three times more likely to report wanting to leave their agency as soon as possible (17%) compared with employees who reported not having been subjected to bullying or harassment (5%). Chapter 3 discusses the relationship between those who report being subject to bullying and harassment in the workplace and the formal reporting of such in more detail.

Figure 4.6 The effect of perceived bullying on employee engagement, 2013

Source: Employee census


Employees who reported they had been bullied were also more likely to report they had gone to work suffering from health problems (64% compared with 42%) and were slightly less likely to report they were productive when at work and unwell. Employees who reported they had been bullied or harassed were also three times more likely than employees who did not indicate they had been bullied to report they had been injured or become ill due to work.

Bullying and harassment behaviours are also related to workplace incivility. The employee census shows that a substantial proportion of APS employees reported they had experienced workplace incivility from colleagues:

  • 24% reported at least sometimes being spoken to in an unprofessional manner
  • 23% reported at least sometimes their colleagues paid little attention to them or their ideas
  • 9% reported their colleagues at least sometimes made demeaning or derogatory comments about them.

Workplace incivility was, unfortunately, not limited to co-workers. Although less frequent, employee census respondents felt their supervisors also engaged in uncivil behaviour:

  • 10% of respondents reported that at least sometimes their supervisor spoke to them in unprofessional terms
  • 16% reported that at least sometimes their supervisor paid little attention to their ideas
  • 5% reported that sometimes their supervisor made demeaning or derogatory remarks about them.

Although not as extreme as harassment or bullying behaviour, perceived workplace incivility has a similar effect on employee engagement.

In 2012–13, 88 agencies had fully developed policies in place on how to respond to reports of workplace bullying. Only three agencies did not have such a policy. Specific bullying prevention programs had also been implemented in 56 agencies, including Harassment Contact Officer networks, workplace respect programs and fact sheets on workplace bullying and harassment.


7 Claim rate data is only analysed for agencies with more than 500 employees to avoid the distortion that can occur when agencies with a small number of employees are included in the analysis. Given the nature of the data, year-on-year acceptance rates for injury claims cannot be calculated. That is, as claims can be received in one year and accepted or not in another, it is not possible to determine how many of the claims received in any given year were accepted.

8 R Karasek, ‘Lower Health Risk with Increased Job Control among White Collar Workers’, Journal of Organizational Behavior, (1990), vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 171–185.

9 Job demand refers to issues such as job design and workload, while control refers to the amount of autonomy employees have over their work (that is, decision making).

10 R Karasek, ‘Job Demands, Job Decision Latitude, and Mental Strain: Implications for Job Redesign’, Administrative Science Quarterly, (1979), vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 285–308.

11 CJ Mackay, R Cousins, PJ Kelly, S Lee and RH McCaig, ‘“Management Standards” and Work Related Stress in the UK: Policy Background and Science’, Work and Stress, (2004), vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 91–112.

12 Comcare, Working Well: An Organisational Approach to Preventing Psychological Injury, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2008); Comcare, Beyond Working Well: A Better Practice Guide, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2009).

13 Medibank, Sick at Work: The Cost of Presenteeism to your Business and the Economy, Sydney (2011).

14 Australian Public Service Commission and Comcare, As One, Working Together: Promoting Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2013).

15 Employees responding to this question are provided with this definition of harassment and bullying: For the purpose of this survey, workplace harassment entails offensive, belittling or threatening behaviour directed at an individual or group of APS employees. The behaviour is unwelcome, unsolicited, usually unreciprocated and usually (but not always) repeated. While there is no standard definition of workplace bullying, it is generally used to describe repeated workplace behaviour that could reasonably be considered to be humiliating, intimidating, threatening or demeaning to an individual or group of individuals. It can be overt or covert.

16 New South Wales Public Service Commission, How it is: State of the NSW Public Sector, State of New South Wales, Sydney, (2012).

17 Employees were able to select more than one option.