Psychosocial hazards can wreak havoc in a workplace, harming both individuals and organisations as a whole. What are psychosocial hazards, why are they so damaging, and how can we safeguard against them in our workplaces?
As part of National Safe Work Month, Brunel Australasia’s Managing Director Tania Sinibaldi discusses the urgent need for companies to identify, assess and manage psychosocial risks at work. She unpacks a real-life example of a psychosocial hazard she encountered at Brunel, and how overcoming it has had a tangible impact on not only staff satisfaction and engagement, but also the company’s bottom line.
Psychological safety in our workplaces
Gone are the days when organisations neglected to address psychological safety as a crucial factor in creating positive environments for workers to thrive. Thanks to a massive cultural shift in recent years, we now have a greater understanding of the crucial role psychological safety plays in creating safe and healthy work environments. Companies have started to invest more in supporting the mental health of their workers, and employees have rightfully increased their expectations to work in environments that place value on psychological safety. An important part of creating psychological safety is addressing factors that increase the risk of work-related stress and may lead to psychological or physical harm – otherwise known as psychosocial hazards.
The cost of psychosocial hazards
The Productivity Commission estimates that work-related mental illness costs the Australian economy up to $17.4 billion each year. On average, 7,984 Australians are compensated for work-related mental health conditions annually. In fact, nine per cent of all serious workers’ compensation claims are for work-related mental health conditions. While perhaps not as prevalent as physical injury claims, when you consider that all these claims may have been avoided if the workplace had been psychologically safe, that percentage is still far too high.
On an individual level, exposure to psychosocial hazards can cause serious psychological and even physical injury. In addition to stress, psychosocial hazards can lead to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and sleep disorders. They can cause physical harm such as musculoskeletal injuries, chronic disease or fatigue related injuries. On average, work-related psychological injuries require longer recovery times, higher costs and require more time away from work.
Detecting psychosocial hazards
Naturally, none of us want the menace of psychosocial hazards encroaching on our workplaces. However, psychosocial hazards can be insidious – hidden from plain view but nevertheless wreaking havoc on staff morale, performance and overall wellbeing. What are some examples of psychosocial hazards?
According to Safe Work Australia, common psychosocial hazards at work include:
- job demands
- low job control
- poor support
- lack of role clarity
- poor organisational change management
- inadequate reward and recognition
- poor organisational justice
- traumatic events or material
- remote or isolated work
- poor physical environment
- violence and aggression
- harassment, including sexual harassment, and
- conflict or poor workplace relationships and interactions
It’s easy to notice if someone breaks a leg in our workplace, but it can be a lot harder to detect someone who is suffering from psychological harm, especially if they feel their job depends upon them masking their situation. While workers may not be comfortable labelling and communicating psychosocial hazards, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Our job as leaders, colleagues, and good humans, is to listen between the lines to detect if anyone is suffering the effects of a psychosocial hazard. Workers may reference their exposure to a psychosocial hazard in various ways. It might sound like: ‘I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing’ (lack of role clarity), or ‘micromanaging is undermining my confidence’ (low job control). It may be more general, such as ‘I feel stressed’ or ‘I’m burnt out,’ in which case you may need to ask further questions to get to the bottom of what they are trying to say.
A psychosocial hazard at Brunel
Let’s take this out of the theoretical realm and into real life. I’d like to share a story from my professional life – a psychosocial hazard I identified and addressed in my own place of work, at Brunel Australasia. I hope that in sharing this you will see the powerful and far-reaching impact that just one seemingly innocuous psychosocial hazard can have on a workforce.
When I joined Brunel in September 2019, I took the time to speak with every staff member about their experience working at the company. In doing so, I noticed a recurring theme: a lack of role clarity. People at all levels of the company seemed confused about what they should be doing, and what others should be doing, as part of their jobs. As a direct result of this, there was a lot of negativity towards others, decisions were hard to get across the line and there were gaps in responses or tasks due to the confusion of who was doing what. Engagement was low, productivity was low and it was impacting Brunel’s bottom line.
In direct response to this, I launched the foundation layer of our strategy, which focused on process, people and structure. The first thing we did as part of this strategy was to give employees new job titles and clear job descriptions. We worked hard to ensure everyone understood their role and what it entailed. We had to reorganise the whole business, but it was well worth it. Our engagement scores from 2019 to 2022 (based on anonymous input from all employees) show a significant uptick in four key areas: engagement, retention, satisfaction and pride. In 2022, the vast majority of our staff are proud to work at Brunel. I’m proud too: it’s been a true team effort to get to where we are today. And the results show in our bottom line as well – we’re now profitable and we’ve grown significantly. I truly believe this positive growth and engagement is a direct result of addressing a psychosocial hazard – lack of role clarity – that was holding us all back.
Practical actions you can take
Regardless of our role, we all have a duty of care to detect and manage psychosocial hazards in our workplaces. In doing so, we not only protect ourselves and others, we also help reduce disruption associated with staff turnover and absenteeism, and improve organisational performance and productivity.
For guidance on practical ways to identify, assess and manage psychosocial risks at work, People at Work is an excellent tool. Safe Work Australia also provides free online resources which you can read and share with your team to build awareness around this important topic.
We all deserve to work in a psychologically safe environment – and we all have our role to play in creating this safe space. Sometimes it takes a bit of courage to address situations where we see ourselves or others may be at risk – but I truly believe the reward is worth the effort. Identifying, assessing and managing psychosocial risks allow us to step up as a collective, and operate at a level where we don’t just survive in our workplaces – we thrive.
About the author
A passionate and emotive leader, Tania Sinibaldi has been overseeing Brunel International N.V.’s operations throughout Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea since September 2019. A strong advocate of lean, grit and a Humanocracy approach, Tania seeks to inspire, empower and equip the people around her to build better businesses and workplaces.