Safe Work Australia recently released its latest national guidance material: ‘Work-related psychological health and safety – a systematic approach to managing your duties’.

The material issued by Safe Work Australia provides employers and other persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) with a comprehensive guide to assist them in ensuring they are doing all that is reasonably practicable to identify and manage psychological health and safety risks in the workplace. This aligns with the overarching legislative duties employers and PCBUs hold under relevant state and federal work health and safety legislation.

The guidance material includes practical information on how employers can identify psychosocial hazards in the workplace. These may consist of high and low job demands, inadequate support for workers, poor workplace relationships, low role clarity, poor organisational change management, remote or isolated work, or poor working conditions.

This guidance will be particularly relevant for those employers whose operational requirements mean they have workers more likely to be exposed to such hazards, for example, remote work sites or operations involving extended periods of solitary work.

The material emphasises the role of a company's leaders in ensuring it is appropriately managing its psychological health and safety risks. This includes guidance on how company officers can ensure they meet the individual due diligence obligations imposed upon them by the harmonised work health and safety laws by taking reasonable steps to:

  • ensure the company has a comprehensive and well-communicated psychological health policy in place;
  • acquire and regularly update knowledge of work-related psychological health and safety matters;
  • ensure there are sufficient resources allocated to implement the company's procedures for managing risks to psychological health and that these resources are being used appropriately; and
  • ensure the company has appropriate processes in place to respond to hazards and incidents and to comply with its obligations under WHS laws.

The guidance material also provides critical information for employers about supporting a workers' return to work following a work-related psychological injury, including achieving a return to work in a timely and safe manner and overcoming barriers to a workers' successful recovery.

A timely reminder for employers

Although the Safe Work Australia guidance material is not legislation, it may be taken into account by a regulator or court in assessing the reasonably practicable steps the employer should have taken to ensure the psychological health and safety of its workers.

The guidance material is a reminder for employers that workplace psychological risks are squarely in the sights of Australian governments and safety regulators. In recent years, workplace mental health hazards have been given significant attention, including the 2012 Federal Government inquiry into workplace bullying and the subsequent changes to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), which emphasised the focus on bullying as a risk to health and safety.

In light of the comprehensive nature of the Safe Work Australia guidance material, employers should consider taking steps to review and revise their policies and procedures for managing psychological health hazards in the workplace. This may include:

  • if they are not already, ensuring health and safety management plans and procedures address mental health risks;
  • reviewing the workplace for the existence of any potential causes of psychosocial hazards and take steps to mitigate them;
  • ensuring existing policies and procedures are up to current best-practice, sufficiently resourced and operating effectively;
  • addressing psychological health risks, incidents and statistics in regular board reports, to assist company officers in meeting their due diligence obligations; and
  • ensuring the company is engaging in consultation about psychological health risks, including with direct employees, other PCBUs and any workers present on its work site or over whom the company exercises a degree of control.