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Why psychosocial safety should be front of mind

By Shandel McAuliffe | |6 minute read
Why Psychosocial Safety Should Be Front Of Mind

Several recent legislation reforms and developments in international work health and safety guidance have established workplace mental health as a global priority. These developments also place a significant impetus on employers to identify and effectively manage workplace psychosocial hazards.

The World Health Organization recently released its first-ever guidelines on mental health at work. These guidelines provide evidence-based global public health guidance on organisational interventions, manager and worker training, and individual interventions for the promotion of positive mental health and prevention of mental health conditions.

This follows last year’s release of ISO 45003: the first global standard that provides specific guidance on the management of psychosocial hazards and risks in a manner consistent with other health and safety risks in the workplace.


These changes add to the growing list of WHS legislation and guidance material that leaders need to be across to protect their people from psychosocial hazards and psychological injury, as well as reduce their organisational exposure to risk.

What are psychosocial hazards?

Safe Work Australia defines psychosocial hazards as anything at work that could cause psychological harm, or harm someone’s mental health.

Psychosocial hazards can relate to the design or management of work that can create stress.

High levels or consistent work-related stress can lead to psychological harm, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or sleep disorders. Stress can also lead to physical harm, including musculoskeletal injuries, chronic disease, or fatigue-related injuries.

Common psychosocial hazards may include:

  • Job demands that are too high or too low
  • Low job control
  • Poor support from supervisors or other workers
  • 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

 Why psychosocial safety matters

Psychosocial safety climate (PSC) refers to the perceptions shared by workers of their organisation’s “systems, policies, practices and procedures for the protection of worker psychological health and safety” (Dollard, Maureen F.; Bakker, Arnold B. 2010).

Studies have linked a favourable psychosocial safety climate with a wealth of organisational benefits, including decreased rates of absenteeism and higher levels of productivity.

At the other end of the spectrum, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression and anxiety cost the global economy US $1 trillion each year, driven predominantly by lost productivity. Safe Work Australia figures show that each year around 7,820 Australians are compensated for a work-related mental condition and that $480 million is paid in compensation for work-related mental health disorders in Australia.

Our organisation, Sonder, partnered with McGregor Tan to survey more than 1,025 Australian workers who were working a minimum of 20 hours per week. The resulting survey overwhelmingly showed that employees expect organisations to make mental health a priority, with 92 per cent of respondents considering it important for their next employer to offer mental wellbeing support.

Managing psychosocial hazards at work

Under model workplace health and safety laws, employers have a responsibility to do everything they reasonably can to prevent exposure to psychosocial hazards and risks.

Steps that leaders can take to comply with their jurisdictional duty for managing psychosocial hazards include:

  • Identifying all psychosocial hazards and/or risks in the workplace
  • Assessing and prioritising the psychosocial hazards and risks
  • Managing and minimising psychosocial hazards and risks
  • Reviewing processes to identify and manage risks on a regular basis
  • Responding to reports of psychosocial hazards and risks

To help organisations navigate the new landscape of WHS rules around psychological safety, Sonder has recently released an update to its ISO 45003 guide to capture recent reforms, including the introduction of clauses on controlling psychosocial risks in the national model WHS Regulations.

Managing and preventing psychosocial hazards and/or risks is not only a responsibility for employers, but it also makes sound business sense. Leaders who actively work with their team members to minimise and eliminate psychosocial hazards and risks are rewarded with increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and a mentally healthy workplace culture.

Craig Cowdrey is the co-founder and CEO of Sonder.

Note from the editor: Please note that this article has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not to be construed as advice, legal or otherwise.

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel has recently returned to Australia after working in the UK for eight years. Shandel's experience in the UK included over three years at the CIPD in their marketing, marcomms and events teams, followed by two plus years with The Adecco Group UK&I in marketing, PR, internal comms and project management. Cementing Shandel's experience in the HR industry, she was the head of content for Cezanne HR, a full-lifecycle HR software solution, for the two years prior to her return to Australia.

Shandel has previous experience as a copy writer, proofreader and copy editor, and a keen interest in HR, leadership and psychology. She's excited to be at the helm of HR Leader as its editor, bringing new and innovative ideas to the publication's audience, drawing on her time overseas and learning from experts closer to home in Australia.

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