Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) issues are commonly discussed in the context of physical injuries suffered on the job, the sprains, strains and dislocations behind the bulk (29%) of compensation claims. These are followed by chronic join and muscular problems (20%) then open wounds (13%) according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data.

Running fourth is a more hidden dilemma, that of mental health. Protecting psychological well-being in a workplace is as important as ensuring a scaffold is secure or that computer workers are not risking repetitive strain injury. And it is this area where claims are on the rise.

While mental health conditions still account for a relatively small number of claims, Safe Work Australia reports that serious claims in relation to mental wellbeing have been increasing for several years – from 6.2% in 2014/15 FY to 9.3% in 2020/21. Key work health and safety statistics Australia 2022 | Safe Work Australia These kinds of claims are also the costliest.

Winds of change

Workplace risks to mental health are now referred to as psychosocial hazards. The term was coined by researchers over 20 years ago in response to growing evidence that significant technological change, among other triggers, was creating workplaces requiring “more difficult, faster, more productive labour with less control over tasks”. Later research concluded that “workplace psychosocial hazards arising from evolving work demands…  are emerging threats to physical and mental health”. Now with the likes of AI and other rapidly emerging technological advances ramping up the pace of change to previously unknown levels, the federal government has introduced rules and regulations around psychosocial hazards, and workplace safety experts are urging employers, managers and anyone in leadership to pay close attention to their evolving obligations.

So what are psychosocial hazards?

In short, any occurrence in a workplace that could trigger psychological harm – job pressures, bullying, harassment of any kind, isolation, poor support, supervision and/or communication, lack of training, bad relationships and stressful interactions, to name a few. These in turn cause harm when they result in the affected employee suffering psychological harm which covers such conditions as anxiety, depression, sleep problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even physical injuries caused by fatigue. 

Improved regulations

Mental health in the workplace started gaining more attention across Australia after an independent review in 2018 found “a widespread view that psychological health is neglected in the model WHS Regulations and Codes”. This led to the inclusion of a new range of regulations on psychosocial hazards being introduced to federal WHS laws in August 2022. These provisions were aimed at defining what constituted such hazards and the duties of those in a position to deal with them, and then how the regulations were implemented was handed to State and territory governments.

Fine tuning

Following the 2018 review, Safe Work Australia requested stakeholder feedback on notification requirements regarding the new regulations. “A consistent view expressed in the consultation process conducted by the [2018 Review] was that the incident notification provisions needed to be clearer and capture all relevant incidents,” said Michael Selinger, a partner at law firm Holding Redlich and expert in workplace relations and safety. Michael Selinger - Partner | Sydney Lawyer | Holding Redlich “There was said to be confusion about whether psychological health issues needed to be notified and if so, when. It was suggested that adding a notification trigger for psychological injury might assist.” Safety regulators also took the view that the new regulations around psychosocial hazards “should be revised to address ambiguities”. 

The latest development has seen Safe Work Australia issue a consultation paper addressing the various options available to improve the notification provisions. Mr Selinger said the options explore “specific gaps and ambiguities in the incident notification framework” and ways in which guidance can be improved for better understanding of the psychosocial workplace issue and the new regulations in place to manage them.

To give feedback on the regulations visit Consultation on options to improve WHS incident notification | Engage SWA The deadline for submissions is 10am on 11th September 2023.