What is ‘Psychosocial Risk’?

Safe Work Australia defines psychosocial risks as anything that could cause psychological harm (e.g. harm someone’s mental health) and physical harm (Source 1). Workers are likely to be exposed to a combination of psychosocial hazards to differing extents or frequency, depending on the nature of their work and workplace environment. When psychosocial risks combine and increase the overall risk there is a greater instance of work-related stress and negative implications for workers.

These risks can stem from the way the tasks or jobs are designed, organised, managed and supervised as well as tasks or jobs where there are inherent psychosocial hazards and risks. Other factors include the equipment, working environment or requirements to undertake duties in physically hazardous environments as well as social factors at work, workplace relationships and social interactions.

Common psychosocial risks and how they can harm workers

Safe Work Australia’s model Code of Practice from July 2022 identifies fourteen psychosocial risks that can arise in the workplace (Source 2). Some of the most prevalent include:

  • Work overload or underload: where workers have too much or too little work to do, leading to stress, anxiety and burnout, or boredom and lack of purpose.
  • Lack of control: when workers feel they have little control over their work or are not given enough autonomy, they may feel helpless or frustrated.
  • Poor social or practical support: when workers do not feel supported by their colleagues or supervisors, or experience poorly managed organisational change, they may become isolated and lonely which can contribute to poor mental health.
  • Conflicting demands or roles: if workers have conflicting priorities, they may experience stress and anxiety as they struggle to meet competing demands.
  • Low recognition and reward: where there is a lack of positive feedback or restricted opportunity for skills development, an employee may feel undervalued and purposeless.
  • Exposure to violence or harassment: when there is an isolated incident or repeated incidents where a person is abused, threatened or assaulted, they may suffer trauma, anxiety and depression.

To view the fourteen psychosocial risks identified in Safe Work Australia’s Code of Practice, click here.

Similar to physical hazards, some workers may be at greater risk from psychosocial hazards due to barriers to understanding or participating in safety processes (Source 2). This means there may be a greater severity of harm for workers who may have:

  • Limited experience (e.g., young workers)
  • Barriers to understanding safety information (e.g., literacy or language)
  • Perceived barriers to raising safety issues (e.g., power imbalance or lack of safety culture), or
  • Previous exposure to a hazard.

How significant is the problem in Australia?

Psychosocial risks pose a significant issue in Australia, with 7,986 Australians (on average) being compensated for work-related mental health conditions each year (Source 2). This makes up 9% of all serious workers’ compensation claims in the country. Psychological injuries usually have longer recovery times, higher costs and mean more time away from work than physical injuries.

The effects of psychosocial risks on workers and the organisation

Exposure to psychosocial risks at work can often cause a stress response in workers. Other harm might be in the form of anxiety, depression, burnout, and other mental health problems if the risk is endured over time. There could also be physical effects such as musculoskeletal injuries, chronic disease or fatigue-related injuries.

These problems can in turn lead to absenteeism, presenteeism (where workers are physically present but not fully engaged in their work due to physical or psychological health problems) and high staff turnover. Such situations can be taxing for workers who may need to seek workplace adjustments or commit time to receive professional help to manage their wellbeing. These issues can also be costly for organisations, both in terms of lost productivity and the cost of recruiting and training new staff.

In addition to the direct costs of psychosocial risks, there are also associated indirect costs. For example, reduced morale and motivation can impact the quality of work or delivery of customer service. This can potentially damage the reputation of the organisation, making it less attractive to potential workers and customers.

Prevention and management of psychosocial risks

Actively managing psychosocial hazards has become a legal responsibility for many organisations in Australia (Source 3). This involves eliminating or minimising psychosocial risks so far as is reasonably practicable, which can be done by following four steps:

  • Identify hazards – find out what could cause harm
  • Assess risks, if necessary – understand the nature of the harm the hazard could cause, how serious the harm could be and the likelihood of it happening (this step may not be necessary if the risks and controls are known)
  • Control risks – implement the most effective control measures possible in the circumstances and ensure they remain effective over time
  • Review control measures – this is to ensure they are working as planned and make changes as required.

Employers should consider hazards holistically and in the context of where they exist, to properly manage them and prevent the harm they can cause.
Bodycare recognises the importance of addressing psychosocial risks in the workplace and can help your organisation develop effective strategies for doing so. Risk management and prevention requires planning and is an ongoing process. Get in touch with our team today for a consultation.

1 Safe Work Australia – Psychosocial hazards
2 Safe Work Australia – Code of Practice
3 Unmind