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Managing Psychosocial Hazards At Work

The safety and wellbeing of employees should be a top priority for all organisations, especially now as mental health issues are on the rise.

According to Safe Work Australia, mental health issues accounted for 9% of all significant workers' compensation claims in 2020–21, a 55.6% increase from 2016–17. Every workplace has hazards, and one of the least well-known types, psychosocial hazards, can have a devastating impact.

Psychosocial hazards in the workplace are situations that may cause a stress response within an individual, which can lead to psychological or physical harm.

Organisations must ensure employees are safe from psychosocial hazards that can have an impact on their health and wellbeing. Keeping employees safe also has benefits for the organisation as employees are more likely to be productive with less employee turnover.  

The Impact of Psychosocial Hazards

Psychosocial hazards in a workplace can have far-reaching impacts on individual employees and the organisation, as employees can suffer both psychological and physical harm. 

1. Psychological Harm

Long-term, high levels of stress can cause psychological harm due to an employee suffering from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and poor sleep. When a person is unable to achieve good quality sleep, it can exacerbate their poor mental health. 

2. Physical Harm 

Elevated stress levels over long periods can cause a range of physical health problems. Muscle tension is a reflex reaction to stress. When a person suffers from chronic stress, their muscles can be in a constant state of guardedness, which can lead to musculoskeletal injuries. There is a known link between stress and chronic diseases, including obesity, Type ll diabetes, arthritis and heart disease.  
Psychosocial hazards can also hurt an organisation’s bottom line by seeing decreases in productivity and morale, and high turnovers. 

3. Decrease in Productivity

Employees don’t work at their best when they’re highly stressed or anxious due to work. Mistakes occur more often when a person is stressed and unable to focus on the task or is pulled in too many directions. Someone who is suffering from stress is more likely to take time off due to physical or mental illness. 

4. High Staff Turnover

Understandably, employees working in a psychologically hazardous environment will want to move to another job that offers them a safer environment. The organisation suffers when it loses a good employee and incurs recruitment and training costs involved in rehiring. A high turnover rate can cause low staff morale and can also hurt future recruitment processes.

Identifying Psychosocial Hazards

Any employee can suffer from psychosocial-related harm in the workplace, but some factors increase the risk including:  

1. Bullying and harassment

Look out for signs of an employee bullying or harassing another employee, as subtle as it may be. Bullying actions can include belittling, shaming, deceiving, withholding information, undue criticism, isolation, and aggression. Harassment involves consistent unwanted behaviour, which can include sexual harassment, racial harassment and religious harassment to name a few. Working towards a safe and healthy workplace culture is essential to counteract these behaviours. Find out tips for effective cultural change in a company here.

2. Remote and isolated work

Working without seeing colleagues can make an employee feel cut off and anxious. The more remote and isolated an employee is, the more likely they will suffer from physical or psychological harm.

In a workforce that’s moving towards more of a hybrid or permanently remote situation, it’s important to check in with your remote employees and create new ways for them to feel connected to the wider organisation. 

3. Violence or traumatic events

Employees exposed to abuse, fear, distress, the threat of harm or actual harm can suffer high levels of stress and psychological and physical injury. 

4. Work Overload

A heavy workload or a lack of training in a role can cause ongoing high-stress levels. Constant high cortisol levels can cause Cushing Syndrome, which can cause a fatty hump between the shoulders, a rounded face and high blood pressure. 

5. Low job control/clarity and poor managerial support

When a worker doesn’t feel they have a say in how they do their work or they receive little clarity or support from their manager or colleagues it can lead to increased stress and anxiety.   

6. Poor physical environment

Working in hazardous or unpleasant conditions can contribute to a worker’s psychosocial risks. For example, when an employee feels uncomfortable in their personal protective equipment (PPE), the work they do isn’t safe, or they struggle to concentrate due to noise, this can contribute to their chronic stress levels. 
Psychosocial hazards are easy to spot when you know the signs to look for. These include; 
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Crying
  • Feeling depressed or anxious
  • A loss of interest in activities the worker previously enjoyed
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling guilty or hopeless
  • Poor work performance
  • Physical symptoms of headache or stomach pain

Best Practices for Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work

All organisations in Australia have a legal obligation to provide staff with a safe working environment, including a psychosocially safe one. Organisations also have a moral obligation to look after the mental wellbeing of staff.

An organisation can reduce its employee’s risk of psychosocial hazards by taking proactive action to prevent it from occurring and intervening early when it’s identified as a problem.  

Employees within an organisation may not be proactive in reporting psychosocial hazards, but they may be willing to report them when asked. Managers are encouraged to have regular one-on-one meetings with their team members to allow employees to open up within a safe space, allowing them to say they can’t cope with the excessive workload or if there are any other stressors in their day-to-day. 

Seeking a professional who can review company information about injuries, resourcing, absenteeism, isolated workers, turnover, and previous psychosocial risk assessments may help recommend strategies for preventing psychosocial risks.  

A psychosocial risk assessment can help determine how severe risks are and what action should be taken to manage the risks. Only after psychosocial hazards are identified can the organisation work on eliminating or minimising the risks. Best practices include recording the risk management process and outcomes so that the organisation can demonstrate that they have met their health and safety obligations. 

Altius Group's Approach to Managing Psychosocial Hazards

Psychological hazards are more difficult to manage than physical hazards. It’s easier for an organisation to turn a blind eye to psychosocial hazards, but tackling them head-on and proactively managing these hazards leads to a healthier and more productive workplace in the short and long term.  

However, it can be difficult for a manager or HR worker to identify psychological hazards, let alone manage them. Engaging a professional organisation like Altius Group reduces the pressure on internal staff to manage hazards that require more experience, time, and effort to deal with.

Altius Group helps organisations by conducting an assessment that is focused on identifying and evaluating psychological hazards and risks and making recommendations for continual improvements. 
For more information and assistance in managing psychosocial hazards in the workplace, don’t hesitate to reach out to Altius Group’s team of WHS experts by calling us on 1800 258 487 or contacting us online. 

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