Workplace Wellbeing

Everything your organisation needs to know about psychosocial hazards

Sam Musguin-Rowe


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Hailed as the most important workplace mental health shift in history, Safe Work Australia’s model Code of Practice rewrites the rules for organisations – quite literally. Find out what it’s all about, why you should care, and how you can protect your people.

In today’s workplace, skipping over health and safety is not just neglectful (though it certainly is that), it’s plain old bad business. Oh, and costly. Very, very costly.

The WHO reckons work is to blame for 2.7% of global deaths and disabilities. Which, in turn, is mega expensive for people, society and governments, as well as employers themselves. The total bill? Some estimates put it at nearly 4% of Earth’s GDP.

In 2017-18, Australian compensation agencies paid out $1.8 billion AUD for at-work injuries or related diseases. In New Zealand, 2020 saw close to 200,000 claims, at a cost of $873 million NZ – a huge figure, yet nothing compared to the $15-21 billion shockwave from staff deaths. 

But, despite mental health being a clear and present workplace danger – in Australia, mental ill-health is the leading cause of time off work, with compensation claims growing at 15-times the rate of physical ones – people often still forget it, when talking about health and safety. 

Although, not any longer. Not here.

In July 2022, Safe Work Australia released its new model Code of Practice: ‘Managing psychosocial hazards at work’. (Based on the Work Health and Safety Act and wider Workplace Health and Safety regulations, it follows the landmark ISO 45003 global standard, published in 2021.) Right away, this made psychological health and safety a top concern. For many organisations, it also became a legal responsibility. 

This is all very big news. With the price for getting it wrong (outlined above/below) massive and, in the worst cases, fatal. Yet – and there’s no easy way to say this – being across all the relevant info is not not confusing. 

So, below, you’ll find a simplified how-to for the safety-conscious-yet-time-poor. Discover everything you want and need to know, plus a few suggested first steps.

What are psychosocial hazards?

In short, psychosocial hazards are – according to Heather Bolton, Unmind’s own Director of Science – “aspects of work which have the potential to cause psychological or physical harm.”

What does this look like IRL? Back to Dr Heather: 

“Examples include excessive workloads, tight deadlines, conflicting demands or a lack of control over ways of working. 

“Just like physical risk factors, the accumulation of psychosocial risks can lead to poor health outcomes like stress, burnout or depression.”

The full Code of Practice is a beefy read (with extensive appendices devoted to ‘Job characteristics, design and management’ and ‘Harmful behaviours’). Though it does flag several relatable examples to look out for, right up top. These are:

  • Job demands
  • Low job control
  • Poor support
  • Lack of role clarity
  • Poor organisational change management
  • Inadequate reward and recognition
  • Poor organisational justice
  • Traumatic events or material 
  • Remote or isolated work
  • Poor physical environment
  • Violence and aggression
  • Bullying
  • Harassment including sexual harassment
  • Conflict or poor workplace relationships and interactions

What does regulation look like?

It really depends. Safe Work Australia is only a policy body, after all. To have legal teeth, the model Code of Conduct has to be approved and applied within a specific place. Australian State-based regulators, although largely consistent, are adopting this in subtly different ways and timeframes. (You can check with your local regulator here.)

Of course, if your local jurisdiction is yet to rubber-stamp these new measures, that’s not to say it won’t. Fines are expected to kick in at some point in 2023 – and in some rare cases, already have.

In May 2022, the Supreme Court of Victoria ordered the Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) to pay a former employee $435,000, after she developed PTSD and a depressive disorder as a result of viewing distressing material for her job.

Given this ruling emerged before the Safe Work Australia’s model Code of Practice came out, this should send a clear warning to employers. First, around the seriousness of psychosocial hazards, and your duty of care to every single staffer. And also, the legal jeopardy that may come from getting it wrong.

Why is this a shared HR and WHS problem?

Psychosocial hazards are, by nature, a people (or rather People) problem. So any company that seeks to not simply shield employees from harm, but help them lead fulfilling lives – at work and at home – will want HR all over these new regulations. 

Why? Because this stuff isn’t about ticking boxes or optics, it’s real. Here’s another chilling stat: the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists claim mental ill-health costs the Australian economy around $60 billion a year.

Beyond the sky-high financials, don’t forget that awareness alone is not nearly enough. Accurately spotting psychosocial hazards – that, again, are anything that can cause physical or psychological harm at work – sometimes needs an expert eye. 

As while these include the spectacularly obvious (e.g. bullying and harassment), there are plenty of low-key, silent alarms (for instance poor support, or a lack of role clarity) that your managers need to be attuned to identify, then act on.

And as if that’s not quite tricky enough, properly acting on these issues represents an even greater challenge.

Where to start?

Here’s a rather obvious launchpad: give the Safe Work Australia ‘Managing psychosocial hazards at work’ Code of Practice a big old read. 

Yes, we know it’s a 54-pager, though what you’ll lose in time you’ll get back in insight (and, maybe, fine-based savings later on). 

From there, think about exploring the free, scientifically-validated People at Work survey. Bursting with in-depth resources and split into five clear steps (‘Preparing the workplace’, ‘Conducting survey’, Understanding your result’, ‘Taking action’, Reviewing and improving’), the end result is a tailored report that contrasts your company with a host of Australian firms.

Last – and maybe most importantly – remember that psychosocial risks are the scarier side of a positive, highly sought-after coin: a work environment that promotes and protects employee’s mental health. And you get there by investing in a workplace culture that truly nurtures employee wellbeing.

This might look like: 

  • Expert-led training. Upskilling managers with the confidence and conviction they need to support their workmates’ wellbeing.
  • Data that demonstrates impact. Pinpointing the mental health challenges that cause absenteeism, burnout and staff turnover, then shaping your strategy to reverse these trends.
  • Company-wide cultural change. That is, change you can feel. From the top-down (think leaders setting the tone, by being open with their own mental wellbeing) and bottom-up (wellbeing champions and employee resource groups, that spread the word from within) alike.

To find out more about these regulations, and how to better protect your people from psychosocial risk factors, check out our practical psychosocial deep dive or schedule a chat with an Unminder today.