Four keys to developing a healthier psychosocial safety climate

There are four key factors which improve psychosocial safety: top management support for stress prevention; prioritising worker psychological health over productivity and profits; better communication systems about risks and prevention; and better consultation with workers and all levels of the organisation in resolving risks, according to the University of South Australia.

“OHS professionals need to press for workplace assessments beyond psychosocial risks to include the safety system that causes or perpetuates risk. This is the psychosocial safety climate,” said UniSA ARC Laureate Fellow Professor Maureen Dollard, who co-authored recent research that examined the microeconomic and macroeconomic costs and benefits of psychosocial safety climates (PSC).

The research found that workers in organisations with a poor psychosocial safety climate take 160 per cent more days off (177 days) per year due to workplace injury or illness, compared to workers in organisations with a high psychosocial safety climate who take 68 days off per year.

Similarly, costs for injury or illness are 104 per cent greater in very low psychosocial safety climate organisations versus high psychosocial safety climate organisations ($67,260 vs $32,939 per employee).

Published in the Safety Science journal, the PSC as an organisational level determinant of working time lost and expenditure following workplace injuries and illnesses study found that the Australian economy could claw back estimated losses of $30 billion per cent each year due to workplace injuries and illness.

In the study, researchers from the University of South Australia compared working conditions in 100 Australian organisations to 12,000 injured workers’ compensation claims, identifying the root cause of delays in people returning to work after workplace-related injury or illness.

It found that companies that offer healthy working conditions to employees, including supportive relationships with supervisors, valuing skills and job autonomy, and minimising work stress, report far fewer days lost per workers’ compensation claim.

“Our findings show that a healthy psychological climate in workplaces is essential if companies want to reduce working time loss and costs related to workplace injuries and illnesses,” said Dollard, who authored the study with colleagues from UniSA’s Psychosocial Safety Climate Global Observatory.

“Aside from a strong psychosocial safety climate, the most important factors in predicting a quicker return to work included how satisfying and rewarding their job was, how supportive their supervisor was, whether their skills were potentially adaptable, and how much autonomy they had in their role,” said Dollard.

In Australia, during 2017-18, an estimated 563,000 people had an injury or illness related to work, representing 4.2 per cent of the workforce. In 60 per cent of cases, the study found this involved taking time off work, costing the equivalent of Australia’s annual agricultural output, or 1.6 per cent of the nation’s GDP.

The most common occupations featured in the claims data included nurses, police officers and personal assistants, while muscle-related injuries comprised the bulk of the claims.

The researchers avoided individual bias by correlating data sets at the organisational level rather than surveys with injured employees on retrospective work conditions.|

“These findings provide more evidence that ‘healthy’ workplaces matter. They are important not only to our psychological health and to prevent injury to workers but also to PSC, which is just as important following injury or illness,” said Dollard.

“Building an organisation with strong psychosocial safety climates will help to reduce time lost and also cut costs through better injury prevention and management.”

Beyond addressing strong psychosocial safety and psychosocial risks for worker psychological health and safety protection, Dollard said the research is clearly important for achieving better return-to-work outcomes, which are both good for workers and enterprise.