Over the past six months, I have had increasingly regular client conversations about psychosocial hazards. Broadly defined as any hazard with potential to cause psychological harm, rapid technology advances and a seismic shift in the way we work has certainly intensified this. Arguably, these factors have also given rise to a new breed of psychosocial hazard related to isolation, burnout and virtual bullying or harassment.
In this context, recent legislative change requires Australian employers to proactively manage psychosocial risks. For example, the Respect@Work amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 established a positive duty to eliminate discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation as far as possible. Similarly, last year SafeWork Australia introduced a model code of practice for managing psychosocial hazards in the workplace. Intended to offer practical guidance around psychosocial risk management, multiple states have now amended their WHS laws to reflect this.
During this time, Azuhr has partnered with many clients to fulfil their new obligations. However, it is clear a set and forget approach is woefully inadequate. By their nature, psychosocial hazards are fluid and evolve as teams and organisations change. Therefore, psychosocial risk management requires continuous renewal. This is particularly true given psychosocial hazards are often less tangible and difficult to diagnose. To add complexity, SafeWork Australia’s model code of practice identifies no less than 14 common psychosocial hazards including role ambiguity, poor change management, inappropriate behaviour and traumatic workplace events among others. It is hardly surprising many leaders feel daunted by the scope and complexity of psychosocial risk management.
However, it is important to recognise that psychosocial hazards are rarely, if ever, totally eliminated. It would be difficult to identify an occupation or a role which doesn’t attract some level of stress – rather what tends to vary is how this manifests at a workplace level. Given we also know that approximately 44% of Australians will experience mental ill-heath at some point in their lives, it is not a question of if, but rather when, you will work with a team member experiencing mental ill health. On that basis, ensuring people leaders at well equipped and prepared in advance is vital.
A crucial first step is embedding psychosocial hazards within existing workplace health and safety management systems. This entails applying the same rigor to identifying, assessing and controlling psychosocial hazards as that applied to more tangible physical hazards in the workplace. In doing so, people leaders must consider the severity of psychosocial hazards together with the frequency and duration of exposure. Effective consultation is the cornerstone of this process because even the initial identification of psychosocial hazards in nuanced. It usually requires significant experience in workplace operations over time and even where the product of psychosocial hazards might be evident (for example through observed employee stress, burnout and attrition) isolating the causal factors usually requires deeper analysis. In this context, it is also possible either line managers or employees have come to accept certain practices and psychosocial hazards as part of the culture in a workplace. The personal risks of speaking up are often perceived to outweigh the possible benefits. Although well intentioned, we also often see middle managers struggling to influence and effect change in their workplaces.
This is where we guide Azuhr clients to upskill people managers and leaders. While we of course deliver core training around psychosocial risk management, workplace behaviour and bystander intervention, we also advise most clients to go beyond this in a preventative sense and upskill people managers in effective job design, inclusion and building high performing teams. We partner with many clients to develop their people leaders accordingly and with the overarching objective of building a high trust culture characterised by psychological safety.
At Azuhr, we consider a high trust culture to be a fundamental tenet of psychosocial risk management. The empirical evidence around this is compelling – employees in high trust cultures report 76% less stress at work and 40% less burnout than their peers in low trust cultures (HBR, 2017). A recent Australian study also found that employees who reported high levels of psychological safety at work experienced fewer psychosocial hazards (The Leaders Lab, 2023). This is likely because high trust cultures enable the genuine consultation required to mitigate psychosocial risks. Importantly, colleagues feel safe to speak up, to raise concerns and share ideas to address these. Dr Amy Edmonson, who first coined the term psychological safety, summarises this well “psychological safety can help to buffer us from psychosocial hazards at work by making it easier to be open with each other and talk about the risk we are encountering and how they can be navigated….it allows us to share our perspectives about what is creating the hazards and work together to minimise or eliminate them.”
Of course, it would be naive to suggest trust and psychological safety are a panacea for psychosocial risks. Rather, a high trust culture must also be underpinned by effective risk controls with ongoing review. However, it is clear that trust is what will enable identifying and controlling psychosocial hazards before they cause significant harm – something no leader wants to be responsible for. With this in mind, the question then becomes – how are you managing psychosocial risks in your team? How will you build the high trust culture to do this successfully?
If you would welcome a conversation regarding psychosocial hazards in your team, and how you can build a high trust culture, please contact us directly.
Senior HR Consultant
+61 408 388 434