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Psychosocial Safety Climate

The workplace can have many positive health impacts for employees. There are social, economic and moral benefits associated with work. Employment provides the economic resources required for participation in society. Work is important to an individual’s sense of self and their place in society, which in turn impacts physical and mental wellbeing.1 In the Australian Public Service (APS), more than three quarters of employees enjoy the work in their current job and nearly two thirds of employees believe that their agency genuinely cares about them being healthy and safe at work.

“Effective workplace health and safety practices reduce absence rates”

However the workplace can also be a place where both physical and psychological injuries occur. While workplace injuries have serious consequences for employees, there is also a cost associated for the organisation. The cost of workplace injuries, particularly psychological injuries, in the APS continues to increase.

The rising rates of these injuries are a concern for APS leaders. Analysis of data from Comcare, the APS insurer, suggests that the incidence of accepted psychological injuries in the APS is higher than in the private sector. The APS is taking a leading role in the prevention of these injuries through the establishment of a Deputy Secretary level working group on managing compensation. The group is focused on reducing the incidence and impact of psychological injuries and the establishment of agency benchmarks against which agencies will be able to monitor their progress towards providing a safe workplace.

A key strategy in the prevention of injuries is the development of practices and procedures to make the workplace safe. The APS has actively pursued workplace safety for many years and has mature processes that have become a normal part of the APS workplace. These efforts have however, been primarily focussed on the prevention of physical injuries.

Recent work conducted in Australia on behalf of Safe Work Australia2 has shown that it is possible to prevent or reduce the likelihood of psychological injuries through the application of a range of workplace practices and procedures.

The psychosocial safety (PSC) score reflects the adequacy of an agency’s practices and processes that have been shown to support good psychological health in the workplace. Research in Australian organisations3 has shown that as workplace health and safety scores reduce, employees face greater risk of suffering from depression and job stress. Both of these factors have been shown to have negative consequences including increased use of sick leave. APS agencies have already begun considering this issue as part of their efforts to better manage injuries in the APS workplace.

This work is relatively new but is gaining prominence. It examines the processes and practices in a workplace that affect employees’ work attitudes, their motivation and performance at work.4

This aspect of workplace health and safety links the demands of an employee’s role and the sense of control they experience over how they do their work. Where employees experience consistently unrealistic time pressures, or have little or no control over how they do their work the workplace health and safety outcome is significantly poorer.

Linking job demands and control with workplace health

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 1.

Active leadership is required at all levels to create safe workplaces. Senior leaders have a profound effect on workplace safety. When senior leaders actively engage their staff on how to deal with workplace problems the effect on workplace safety is clear.

Senior leaders affect workplace health and safety

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 2.

Immediate supervisors also have a role to play. When they provide a supportive workplace through a commitment to workplace health and safety and by treating all employees with respect, there is a clear effect on workplace health and safety.

Immediate supervisors affect workplace health and safety

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 3.

While looking after the health and wellbeing of employees is grounded in legislation and good business sense, the data suggests that APS agencies can do more. APS employee census results suggest that effective workplace health and safety practices can reduce absence rates. Clear communication within workgroups about what constitutes appropriate leave behaviour, and timely support for managers from corporate areas on managing attendance in the workplace are also important factors.

Interactive Chart: Sick leave and Psychosocial Safety Climate score

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 4.

A correlation exists between the PSC score for an agency and the number of sick leave days taken by their agency employees. Agencies with higher PSC scores typically have lower staff absence rates.

Analysis conducted by the APS shows that there are a number of activities that agencies are using to improve workplace health and safety:

► Having senior leaders (SES) actively promote mental health in the workplace through formal activities such as the introduction of workplace mental health programs or less formal activities like participation in World Mental Health day activities.

► Incorporating messages in agency-wide communications from the senior leadership that reinforce the importance of employee health, particularly mental health.

► Reinforcing existing processes or developing new ones that support communication about workplace safety issues.

► Ensuring a regular and routine flow of information from management to employees about psychological safety risks in the workplace.

► Ensuring there is a process whereby concerns raised by employees about psychological safety risks are acknowledged by line management or health and safety staff.

► Actively promoting stress prevention at all levels, particularly through middle management/executive level staff.

[1] Waddell, G & Burton, A 2006, Is work good for your health and well-being?, TSO, London.

[2] Safe Work Australia 2012, The Australian Workplace Barometer: Report on psychosocial safety climate and worker health in Australia, Canberra, Safe Work Australia.

[3] Bailey, T, Dollard, M, Richards, P 2015, ‘A national standard for psychosocial safety climate: PSC41 as the benchmark for low risk of job strain and depressive symptoms’, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 15–26.

[4] Parker, CP, Baltes, BB, Young, SA, Huff, JW, Altmann, RA, Lacost, HA & Roberts, JE 2003, ‘Relationships between psychological climate perceptions and work outcomes: A meta-analytic review’, Journal of Organizational Behavior, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 389–416.