By Hannah Hurst

When COVID-19 arrived on our shores in 2020, for many businesses the shift from location-based work to working from home was rapid and for companies not equipped for this work setting, it was a big adjustment. Eighteen months on, many companies have chosen to continue to either operate a remote or hybrid workforce, and while working from home is beneficial for employers and workers alike there is a downside – psychological injuries are an increasing concern and risk for Australian employers.

Did you know that SafeWork Australia reported up to 7,200 Australians were compensated for workplace psychological injuries each year? Under Australian Work Health & Safety (WHS) laws, employers, also known as ‘PCBU’s – Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking – have an overarching statutory duty to provide a safe working environment for all employees. Therefore, employers must ensure that they understand what a psychological injury is, and how to identify and control the risk of them occurring in the workplace.

So, let’s talk about psychological injury. Here, I address some common questions to help you understand your legal obligations as an employer and how to identify risks to your employees.

1. What is your WHS duty?

Australian WHS laws cover risks to both psychological and physical health for employees. This means that employers are required to eliminate or minimise work-related risk to psychological health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable.  When a psychological injury occurs in the workplace, the PCBU and individual officers of the PCBU, will be held liable and be subject to severe penalties where they did not do all things reasonably practicable to prevent the injury from occurring – up to an including gaol time for individuals in serious cases.

In the workers compensation sphere, all state based jurisdictions hold that an injury will be compensable if it results from the course of employment.  That is, if employment had a significant, material, substantial or is the major contributing factor to the injury, it will be a compensable injury. However, claims for psychological injury are generally not accepted if they’re related to reasonable action taken by the employer in relation to dismissal, retrenchment, transfer, performance appraisal, disciplinary action, or deployment.

It is crucial that employers understand the psychological hazards present in their business and control the risks they present. Understanding this will help to minimise the occurrence of psychological injuries in the workplace and alleviate the organisational risk of not doing so.

2. What is a psychological injury?

Psychological or mental health injuries include a wide range of cognitive, emotional, and behavioural symptoms that interfere with a person’s life. These symptoms can significantly impact how an individual feels, thinks, behaves, and interacts with others. Psychological injuries include disorders such as depression, anxiety, and stress related conditions.

3. How does psychological injury happen?

Psychological injuries are generally caused by a specific event or other factors, often referred to as hazards. In the workplace, psychological injury may be caused by environmental, organisational, or individual factors, for example:

  • Environmental factors: unsafe noise levels, equipment, and accidents as well as bullying, harassment, and intimidation.
  • Organisational factors: poor support from superiors, constant change, and high levels of stress.
  • Individual factors: personality and past experiences which make the person more likely to suffer a psychological injury.

Failure to control these hazards in the workplace leads to increased risks of psychological injury and higher levels of workplace stress. The flow-on effect from this includes increases in unplanned absences, employee attrition, withdrawal and absenteeism, and poor work quality.

4. Why are psychological injuries more prominent in a distributed workforce?

A distributed workforce is a term used to explain team members who are not in the same physical location when undertaking work. For some employees, remote working is a dream come true, but for others who thrive off others around them, working from the same location as their team is much preferred.

Lack of team support and workplace camaraderie can often cause employees to feel isolated and experience higher levels of stress which can be a downside to a work from home setting and are stressors that can contribute to psychological injuries.

5. Psychological injuries and COVID-19 – what are the impacts?

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some level of stress for every Australian. While employers can’t completely remove the stress employees are feeling at home, they are still legally obligated under WHS law to take all appropriate steps to eliminate or minimise the risk to workers’ psychological health and safety while at work, so far as reasonably practicable.

It is highly likely that COVID-19 has introduced or increased psychosocial hazards in your workplace including:

  • Exposure to physical hazards and poor environmental conditions, such as exposure to COVID-19 or lack of personal protective equipment;
  • Exposure to violence, aggression, traumatic events, and discrimination such as, aggressive customers;
  • Increased work demand such as, delivery drivers working longer hours;
  • Low support and isolated work;
  • Poor workplace relationships such as, lack of communication and decreased interaction;
  • Poor organisational change management such as, changing responsibilities and restructures due to COVID-19); and
  • Increased emotional demands such as, nurses supporting patients who can’t see family).

6. How can employers reduce psychological injury risks?

Given that WHS law does not discriminate between physical and psychological safety in the workplace, it is critical that your WHS management system does not either. In an environment where employees are under significant mental demand working from home, the employer must ensure they have a robust WHS management system that can sufficiently identify, assess, control, and regularly review risks arising from psychological hazards at work.

We all know the saying ‘People don’t plan to fail; they fail to plan’, and this is certainly true when it comes to WHS. Managing WHS is all about planning. The better the processes, policies, and procedures you have in place, the better equipped you’ll be to not only deal with WHS issues, but avoid them too. You can never be overprepared. Without adequate protocols, you, your officers and other employees won’t be able to effectively minimise the risks of injuries and manage incidents.

These simple steps outline hazard identification and risk control measures that will help to ensure an organisations WHS management system is effective:

1. Identify hazards

Identify psychological hazards and risks by:

  • talking and listening to your workers;
  • inspecting your workplace;
  • taking note of how your workers interact;
  • reviewing reports and records; and
  • using a survey tool to gather information.

2. Assess risks

Consider the possibilities if workers were exposed to the hazards and risks identified. When assessing the level of risk posed by the hazard, consider:

  • the seriousness of the risk;
  • which employees are most at risk and affected;
  • whether the risk is organisation-wide or only applies to specific employees and/or duties;
  • the controls currently in place and whether they are effective;
  • further controls to lower the risk level; and
  • the priority for action.

3. Control risks

Eliminating the risk is always the safest option, but if this isn’t possible, employers must implement plans and procedures that effectively minimise the potential risk.

4. Review and maintain control measures

Constant monitoring of control measures will ensure that those implemented remain effective. Consulting employees throughout the planning process will help employers better understand the risks and how to effectively minimise them. To avoid miscommunication, employers should use agreed consultation processes such as health and safety representatives or committees to review, maintain and improve control measures. 

Got a question about psychological injury? Contact the team at enableHR today!

See enableHR in action today! Contact us to learn more about how we can help your business manage psychological injuries.

Hannah Hurst is a Workplace Relations Consultant at FCB Group (our parent company). She regularly provides advice to a wide range of businesses in respect to compliance with workplace laws and has a special interest in the retail industry. Hannah is also a fourth-year law and commerce student at Macquarie University.