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Psychosocial hazards

For: Employers and managers Information seekers

Good work is good for people’s mental health and wellbeing. It provides structure and purpose, a sense of identity, and opportunities to develop skills and increased feelings of self-worth.

There are some circumstances, however, where work has undesirable impacts on health and wellbeing.


Eliminate psychosocial hazards

Psychosocial hazards are aspects of work which have the potential to cause psychological or physical harm.

Bullying in the workplace

Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety.

Examples of workplace bullying include offensive language, intimidating behaviour, belittling comments, practical jokes or unjustified criticism.

Bullying in the workplace is often the result of poor workplace culture supported by an environment which allows this behaviour to occur. Identifying and dealing with bullying and other workplace conflict early helps promote respectful behaviour and prevents bullying from becoming accepted behaviour.

For more information on the risk and how to prevent and respond to bullying in the workplace, see Bullying by Safe Work Australia.

Resources for employers

Resources to assist employers to fulfil their responsibilities:

Workplace bullying support pack for employers:

Resources for employees and other workers

Resources for workers concerned about inappropriate workplace behaviour or bullying:

Fatigue

Fatigue is more than feeling tired and drowsy. It is an acute, ongoing state of tiredness that leads to mental or physical exhaustion and prevents people from functioning normally.

Fatigue is a physical condition that can occur when a person’s physical or mental limits are reached.

Signs of fatigue include:

  • tiredness even after sleep
  • reduced hand-eye coordination or slow reflexes
  • short term memory problems and an inability to concentrate
  • blurred vision or impaired visual perception
  • a need for extended sleep during days off work.

Most industries are affected to some degree by fatigue. However, some types of work and sectors have an inherently higher risk of fatigue, particularly those involving shift work or long-haul transportation:

For more information on the risks and remedies, see:

Mental stress

Work-related mental stress is the worker’s reaction when workplace demands and responsibilities are greater than the worker can comfortably manage or are beyond the worker’s abilities. It can affect each worker differently and originate from different sources.

Risk

Mental stress causes the body to move into a fight or flight reaction which releases adrenaline and cortisol, raises the heart rate, boosts glucose levels in the bloodstream and diverts energy from the immune system to other areas of the body.

This reaction helps people remove themselves from danger at which time the body usually returns to normal.

When mental stress is prolonged, the body will not return to normal as easily and many key body systems can be affected and may start to break down causing major health problems.

In the workplace, the symptoms of stress can translate to personal and business costs, such as:

  • breakdown of individual and team relationships
  • poor morale and erosion of worker loyalty and commitment
  • increased absenteeism and staff turnover
  • reduced employee efficiency and workplace productivity and profitability
  • increased employer costs associated with counselling, worker assistance and mediation
  • increased workers’ compensation claims and employer legal costs.

Remedies

The Job Demands-Resources model of occupational stress highlights that employees need to balance both the demands of a job and the resources available to them in the workplace, to reduce work-related mental stress.

High levels of job demand and low levels of job resources increase the risk of mental stress.

Job demands can include:

  • role overload
  • role ambiguity or conflict
  • mental and emotional demands of the job
  • conflict arising from tasks or relationships

Job resources and strengths can include:

  • job control
  • supervisor and co-worker support
  • praise and recognition
  • following fair and just process
  • change consultation.

In practice, preventing and managing stress in the workplace before it becomes a risk to health and safety may be achieved by:

  • having senior management commitment to reducing workplace stress
  • consulting with workers to create and promote a mentally healthy workplace culture
  • ensuring the organisation has appropriate policies and procedures in place and workers are aware of these
  • managing workplace psychosocial risk factors
  • providing regular and respectful performance feedback
  • having a dedicated harassment officer – sometimes known as a contact officer, equal opportunity officer or equity contact officer – in place for workers to speak to
  • providing training around managing workplace and individual stress levels.

More information

Overseas work

Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act), the duties of a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) and an officer’s obligations in respect to managing workers overseas are identical to workers onshore.

Each overseas project has its own psychosocial and physical hazards and risks. The PCBU needs to consider, take reasonably practicable steps, and document the steps to address the health and safety risks of managing the overseas project and travel.

For more information, see:

Remote or isolated work

Working alone or remotely increases the risks to physical and psychological health in any job. Exposure to violence and poor access to emergency assistance are among the common hazards associated with remote or isolated work.

Remedies depend on the conditions and context of the work, but may include:

  • relocate the work
  • provide vehicles, equipment, tools and communication equipment suitable for use in the terrain
  • have at least two workers in remote locations
  • ensure workers are physically and mentally fit to perform the work
  • provide appropriate training about working in remote or isolated environments
  • avoid riskier times of the day, such as excessive heat, cold, storms and when the circadian rhythm wants the body to sleep
  • ensure adequate facilities for workers including toilets, drinking water, eating facilities and personal storage
  • provide accommodation
  • have a check-in process where workers must contact ‘home base’ at a nominated time
  • have an emergency response plan if workers fail to report in at allotted times.

For more information on the risks and remedies, see:

Workplace change

Change is a part of working life and can bring about positive changes for organisations and workers, such as increased productivity, clarity of role and increased work satisfaction. Change can also be challenging and can affect moral and engagement if not managed well.

During times of change it is important to consider your work health and safety management systems and integrate these into the change process to monitor and prevent risks to workers.

When change is supported through consultation and effective communication, workers are more likely to receive the change positively and this can improve health and productivity. In contrast, when change is not well managed, it can lead to psychological injures, poor health outcomes and a decrease in productivity.

During change, it is important for organisations to focus on these key elements which help protect employees and other workers from psychological harm:

  • consultation
  • prevention
  • early intervention
  • recovery and return to work
  • leadership.

For more information about managing change well, see:

Workplace violence or customer aggression

Workplace or occupational violence can be any incident where a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances arising out of, or in the course of their work.

The violence can be either directed at the person or as a result of witnessing violence against someone else.

Examples of violence may include:

  • biting, spitting, scratching, hitting, kicking
  • punching, pushing, shoving, tripping, grabbing
  • throwing objects
  • verbal threats
  • aggravated assault
  • any form of indecent physical contact
  • threatening someone with a weapon or armed robbery.

For more information on the risks and remedies, see Work-related violence by Safe Work Australia

Page last reviewed: 15 December 2019
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Comcare
GPO Box 9905, Canberra, ACT 2601
1300 366 979 | www.comcare.gov.au

Date printed 09 Aug 2020

https://www.comcare.gov.au/safe-healthy-work/prevent-harm/psychosocial-hazards