Safety and HR teams work together to tackle psychosocial risks

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While there is increased awareness of how psychological health can impact workers, some of the largest companies and government departments in Australia are yet to respond to the increasing regulator focus on workplace psychosocial risks.

A global research study has found that employers are still struggling to manage the issue, with considerable sector and regional differences in departmental responsibility and definitions as well as differing approaches to addressing psychosocial/psychological risks.

Furthermore, few organisations have taken a holistic systems-based approach to this area of emerging focus for safety regulators and legislators.

The research report, which was conducted by global law firm Ashurst, compiles the views of senior business leaders from across the FTSE 100, Australia’s top 200 ASX-listed companies, and large government agencies and departments on psychological and psychosocial risks in the workplace.

While early detection of psychosocial risks in the workplace is important to managing these risks, the report found nearly 30 per cent of respondents indicated that their organisation does not report in any way to their senior management or board about psychosocial risk. This rate rose to 60 per cent of respondents in professional services.

The vast majority of respondents with operations in Australia (80 per cent) considered psychosocial and psychological issues to be a safety issue. By contrast, only 26 per cent of respondents with operations in the UK considered these a safety issue, with the majority considering them an HR issue.

Nearly 56 per cent of respondents with primary operations in Australia indicated that their HR and safety teams work together to manage psychosocial risk, compared to not even 21 per cent of respondents with primary operations in the UK.

Results also varied between industries, with more respondents in professional services (60 per cent) and mining/natural resources (58 per cent) stating their HR and safety teams worked together on this issue, compared to 20 per cent of respondents in the financial services sector.

“Psychosocial risk is not just a WHS issue. HR and WHS teams in all industries globally need to collaborate to effectively manage psychosocial risk in the workplace as a systemic issue,” said Trent Sebbens, employment partner at Ashurst.

“In Australia, psychosocial risk has captured the attention of Governments and regulators, with both safety regulators and discrimination agencies putting efforts into education and enforcement.

“To meet their duties, employers must be far more proactive about addressing psychosocial risk in workplace investigations and other traditional HR areas and place a safety lens on those issues.”

The research also identified a heavy reliance on workers to manage their own psychosocial risk in workplace investigations, with 32 per cent of respondents indicating that they rely on staff training in resilient work practices.

Furthermore, over 50 per cent indicated their organisation has taken no steps or don’t know what steps have been taken to eliminate or mitigate psychosocial risks associated with misconduct and safety investigations.

In addition, only 12 per cent of respondents indicated that they use data analytics and technology to manage psychosocial risk, suggesting most organisations are not getting maximum value and insights from their available data that would help them mitigate these risks.

Meanwhile, 30 per cent of organisations already have a designated mental health officer, wellbeing officer, or similar role, despite this not being required by legislation or codes of practice in Australia or the UK.

This indicates some organisations are choosing to proactively introduce such roles as a control measure to manage psychosocial risks in the workplace.

Ashurst said these findings highlight the significant scope for organisations to better manage workplace psychosocial risks and implement risk assessments for mental health outcomes as part of their workplace health and safety, investigations, and appropriate workplace behaviour policies.

“Psychosocial risk is the new frontier of WHS globally, and it’s arguably the most challenging area of WHS to manage proactively,” said Tony Morris, risk advisory partner at Ashurst.

“While some organisations have completed risk assessments in consultation with their workforce, many challenges remain.

“This is a change management journey for WHS, not only for organisations but for safety regulators charged with enforcing the law. It will be important for all organisations and industries to get ahead of the change and minimise the risks of psychosocial hazards.”