Identifying psychosocial risks and worker vulnerability

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Identifying psychosocial risks and worker vulnerability

Guidance from Safe Work Australia can help you clock the psychosocial risks in your workplace, and understand which workers might be most vulnerable.

Written by RTWMatters team


Uncertain about your obligations regarding work-related psychological health and safety? Safe Work Australia has published a national guide, based on the model OHS legislation, which as of September, 2018, has been implemented in all jurisdictions except Western Australia and Victoria.

The Guide clarifies what businesses must do to comply with legislation, and also makes recommendations about what should be done if the aim is best practice.

Overall, it lays out a framework for a systematic approach to managing psychological health and safety at work, based on three overlapping aims:

  1. Preventing harm;
  2. Intervening early; and
  3. Supporting recovery.

Preventing work-related psychological harm involves:

  • Identifying work related psychosocial hazards and risks;
  • Assessing relevant risks;
  • Implementing effective control measures; and
  • Consulting with workers and other relevant parties.

In this article, we’ve excerpted (and rearranged) material from the guide that addresses the first of these steps – identifying work related psychosocial hazards and risks.

We believe that workers are particularly vulnerable to psychological harm following work injury, and during the sometimes fraught process of return to work.  (Injuries sustained during this period are called “secondary” injuries.)

Return to Work Coordinators, as well as HR staff, will benefit from a clear understanding of work situations that may cause or increase vulnerability to mental ill-health.

How to identify psychosocial hazards

Psychosocial hazards are anything in the design or management of work that increases the risk of work-related stress. Stress is the physical, mental and emotional reactions that occur when a worker perceives the demands of their work exceed their ability or resources to cope. Work-related stress if prolonged and/or severe can cause both psychological and physical injury.

Psychosocial hazards can arise from organisational factors (work organisation, job design and poor workplace culture), environmental factors and individual factors. Workers are likely to be exposed to a combination of psychosocial hazards; some may always be present, while others only occasionally. Some psychosocial hazards are common, others are unique to particular organisations and workplaces: both kinds should be identified, assessed and managed.

Psychosocial hazards may be identified by:

  • Having conversations with workers, supervisors and health and safety specialists;
  • Inspecting the workplace to see how work is carried out, noting any rushing, delays or work backlogs;
  • Noticing how people interact with each other during work activities;
  • Reviewing relevant information and records such as reporting systems including incident reports, workers’ compensation claims, staff surveys, absenteeism and staff turnover data; and
  • Using surveys to gather information from workers, supervisors and managers.

Common work-related psychosocial hazards are listed below.

Common psychosocial hazards

High job demands

Sustained high physical, mental and or emotional effort is required to do the job.

Some examples are tasks or jobs that require:

  • Long work-hours
  • High workloads – too much to do, fast work pace or significant time pressure
  • Long periods of vigilance looking for infrequent events (like air traffic controllers, during long distance driving, security monitoring)
  • Emotional effort in responding to distressing situations or distressed or aggressive clients (like paramedics dealing with difficult patients)
  • Exposure to traumatic events or work-related violence (like emergency workers)
  • Shift work leading to higher risk of fatigue, or
  • Frequently working in unpleasant or hazardous conditions (like extreme temperatures or noise, around hazardous chemicals or dangerous equipment, or having to perform demanding work while wearing uncomfortable protective clothing or equipment).

Low job demands

Sustained low levels of physical, mental or emotional effort required to do the job.

Tasks or jobs that where there is:

  • Too little to do, or
  • Highly repetitive or monotonous tasks (like picking and packing products, monitoring production lines).

Low job control

Where workers have little control over aspects of the work including how or when a job is done.

Tasks or jobs where:

  • Work is machine or computer paced
  • Work is tightly managed (like scripted call centres)
  • Workers have little say in the way they do their work, when they can take breaks or change tasks
  • Workers not involved in decisions that affects them or their clients, or
  • Workers are unable to refuse dealing with aggressive clients (like police services).

Poor support

Tasks or jobs were workers have inadequate:
− emotional support from supervisors and co-workers
− information or training to support their work performance, or
− tools, equipment and resources to do the job.

Poor workplace relationships

Jobs where there is:

  • Workplace bullying, aggression, harassment including sexual harassment, discrimination, or other unreasonable behaviour by co-workers, supervisors or clients
  • Poor relationships between workers and their managers, supervisors, co-workers and clients or others the worker is required to interact with
  • Conflict between workers and their managers, supervisors or co-workers – this is made worse if managers are reluctant to deal with inappropriate behaviours, or
  • Lack of fairness and equity in dealing with organisational issues or where performance issues are poorly managed.

Low role clarity

Jobs where there is:

  • Uncertainty about or frequent changes to tasks and work standards
  • Important task information which is not available to the worker, or
  • Conflicting job roles, responsibilities or expectations (such as a worker is told one job is a priority but another manager disagrees).

Poor organisational change management

Workplaces where there is:

  • Insufficient consideration of the potential WHS and performance impacts during downsizing or relocations or associated with the introduction of new technology and production processes
  • Inadequate consultation and communication with key stakeholders and workers about major changes, or
  • Not enough practical support for workers during transitions times.

Low recognition and reward

Jobs where:

  • There is a lack of positive feedback
  • There is an imbalance between workers’ efforts and formal and informal recognition and rewards
  • There is lack of opportunity for skills development, or
  • Skills and experience are underused.

Poor organisational justice 

Workplaces where there is:

  • Inconsistent application of policies and procedures
  • Unfairness or bias in decisions about allocation of resources and work, or
  • Poor management of underperformance.

Poor environmental conditions

Exposure to poor quality or hazardous working environments.

Examples include:

  • Hazardous manual tasks
  • Poor air quality
  • High noise levels
  • Extreme temperatures, or
  • Working near unsafe machinery.

Remote work

Work at locations where access to resources and communications is difficult and travel times may be lengthy.

Examples include:

  • Farmers
  • Real estate agents
  • A community nurse conducting visits at night
  • Night shift operators in petrol stations or convenience stores
  • Off shore mining, and
  • Fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workers.

Isolated work

Work where there are no or few other people around where access to help from others especially in an emergency may be difficult.

Violent or traumatic events

A workplace incident involving exposure to abuse, the threat of, or actual harm that causes fear and distress and can lead to stress and/or a physical injury. This is common amongst groups such as first responders, disaster and emergency services and defence personnel.

Examples include:

  • Robbery
  • Assault
  • Being bitten, spat at, scratched or kicked
  • Being threatened with a weapon.

Secondary or vicarious trauma

There are also risks associated with witnessing a fatality, or investigating a serious injury or fatality. Some workers such as child protection workers, lawyers, police officers, forensic scientists, journalists and custom officers may as part of their work need to repeatedly listen to detailed descriptions of very painful and traumatic events experienced by others.

Individual factors

People respond to hazards in different ways. Individual differences that may make some workers more susceptible to harm from exposure to the same hazard include:

  • Being a new or young worker
  • Having an existing disability, injury or illness
  • Having previously been exposed to a traumatic event, or
  • Workers who are currently experiencing difficult personal circumstances.

By talking to your workers, including these groups, and asking how they are coping you can decide if they may need some additional support so they can do their work safely and well.

See the Safe Work Australia guide for more information.


*This article is supplied by Return to Work Matters an industry leading in claims management strategies; this article was written by RTWMatters team.  All views, opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the authors and/or speakers and do not necessarily reflect the view, opinion, conclusion and/or policy of ExamWorks and its affiliates.

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