Dr Way closely explains what “reasonably practicable” really means when it comes to ensuring psychological health in the workplace by addressing each of the five relevant matters listed in the WHS laws. Her message is unequivocal: employers are duty-bound to manage the risks associated with mental health disorders associated with work.
With around 45 percent of Australians experiencing a mental health condition in their lifetime, Dr Way emphasises the duty of all employers to keep their workers safe, including their mental health.
Dr Way demonstrates that, apart from the cost of mental ill-health to worker wellbeing, the productivity costs to Australian businesses are profound in terms of absenteeism, presenteeism, disengagement, and negative implications for work and client relationships.
She calls on the business community to act on issues affecting work-related mental health, and provides concrete examples of what can be done.
Who is this seminar for?
This seminar is for small and micro business owners, their families and employees, regulators, and professionals in mental health, work health and safety and business management.
About the presenters
Dr Kirsten Way is an organisational psychologist, occupational therapist and certified professional ergonomist who specialises in the study of worker and group-level psychology and its influence on various aspects of organisational performance, particularly WHS and injury management.
Dr Way has particular expertise in work design and occupational health and is currently Senior Lecturer OHSE in the School of Law and Business at the Australian Catholic University, where she conducts research on the role of supervisors in conflict, occupational stress, fatigue, injury management, and occupational health and wellbeing.
- Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance
- Comcare and the Australian Public Service Commission guide Working Together: Promoting mental health and wellbeing at work
- Leanne Faulkner’s Fortitude blog
- Australian Government small business portal
- Heads Up
- Mental Health Online
- Mind Health Connect
- Defence Mental Health Online
- Mates in Construction
- Business in Mind
Australian Catholic University
Dr Kïrsten Way
Centre for Sustainable HRM and Wellbeing, ACU
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Dr Kïrsten Way:
Did you know that around 45% of Australians will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime?
Many of us are concerned about this, as well we should be. The cost to human health and wellbeing in Australia is certainly troubling. The productivity costs to Australian businesses can be understood in terms of absenteeism, presenteeism, disengagement, and negative implications for work and client relationships.
Work-related mental health is something as a business community that we can act on, and there are very real, concrete things we can do.
Despite this clear imperative for action, there is a common refrain I hear from some quarters and I’m sure I’m not alone in hearing it. Have you ever heard business leaders or line managers say:
It’s just not practical for my business to make changes to the way we work. It’s a cut throat industry, we have externally driven deadlines and there’s no way we would be competitive if we ‘redesigned our work’ so it wasn’t ‘stressful’ for people.
And anyway, it isn’t our fault that so many Australians have a mental health disorder. It’s a community problem, why should we wear it?
Dr Kïrsten Way:
If you have ever wondered if there might be some kernel of truth to statements like this, listen as I talk briefly about what the evidence really says.
Hello, my name is Dr Kïrsten Way and I’m from the Centre for Sustainable HRM and Wellbeing in the Faculty of Law and Business at the Australian Catholic University, and today I’m here to talk to you about what is really ‘reasonably practicable’ to ensure psychological health and safety in your business.
Now I want to be clear, I'm not a lawyer, I'm an organisational psychologist and academic and what I’m talking about today is what the body of knowledge tells us that may help in determining what that WHS compliance term ‘so far as reasonably practicable’ might really look like when it comes to ensuring psychological health and safety.
So first things first – where does an employer’s duty start and finish? It comes back to that statement we heard earlier:
‘It’s not our fault that the number of people with mental health disorders is so high. Why should we wear the responsibility?’
Well I’m going to tell you an interesting fact about work-related mental health and it’s this:
When it comes to depression, Australian researchers have found that around 15% is attributable to work.
What this tells us is that while employers might not be duty bound to manage the risk associated with the full gamut of mental health disorders in the community, they are unquestionably duty bound to manage the risk associated with the mental health disorders associated with work – that 15%.
There may be more circumstances where they are required to act, but this approximately 15% is the bare minimum.
The next thing to help us in breaking down ‘what is reasonably practicable’ is to consider each of the five matters listed in the relevant section of WHS law – you can see them here and we will look at each of these in turn.
The first two matters are a) the likelihood; and b) the degree of harm from exposure to work-related psychosocial hazards.
Now, there are three things that the body of knowledge provide that will help weigh up these issues:
First, there are known risk factors that must be assessed – we know these risk factors increase the likelihood and severity of harm – they’re illustrated here. Have a quick look at them and think about a job in your workplace where absenteeism is high. Can you see any of these in the way the work is designed or managed?
High work demands such as time pressure; dealing with emotional clients; or exposure to emotionally distressing situations; role overload; low control over how the work is done; low levels of support to achieve work outcomes; role conflict; poorly managed relationships including conflict between co-workers or bullying; poorly managed change; or a lack of recognition and reward. Each of these risk factors is underpinned by significant theory and empirical evidence that supports these being central to knowing if your jobs are high risk for mental health disorders.
The second fundamental thing that the body of knowledge tells us about determining risk to psychological health and safety is this: The only way to get an accurate idea of the likelihood and severity of harm is to ask your workers about their experience of these risk factors. It is their cognitive appraisal of these job factors that influence their stress and coping response. Decades of research have told us that it is this that defines whether workers are experiencing the work design and management as a positive challenge, or as exceedingly stressful and therefore high risk.
The third and last thing the body of knowledge tells us?
Well it provides numerous benchmarks both Australian and international, built up by many researchers, that you can access to determine if your work design and management has a higher incidence of these risk factors than normative workplaces. These benchmarks can really help with your decision making about likelihood and severity of risk.
So these three things are fundamental in determining the likelihood and severity, or in other words, answering the question ‘do we have a problem with psychological health and safety at our workplace?’
Measure the risk factors known to increase the risk, ask workers about their experience of these risk factors, and where helpful, utilise benchmarks.
These three things are so well documented, the subject of so much empirical research, and so readily accessible, that they clearly provide evidence to answer the question to the third relevant matter in determining ‘what is reasonably practicable’, that is, what the person ought reasonably know about psychosocial hazards.
I’d now like us to consider the last two matters you need to weigh up when determining what is reasonably practicable to ensure psychological health and safety. Now it’s hard to be specific or prescriptive here as there is such a variation in work and workplace scenarios, but three fundamental things apply and again they are backed up by research:
First, the most suitable control measures will be matched to those of the risk factors you identified as making the job high risk. It sounds obvious, and the body of knowledge provides evidence about what are suitable control measures for each of these risk factors.
Second, the most suitable control measures will be matched to those specific work areas of the business identified as high risk. You don’t necessarily need ‘whole of organisation’ interventions. For example, in one business I worked with control measures focused on revising KPIs, how they’re monitored and how reaching those KPIs were rewarded. In another, control measures focused on managing the risk of exposure to trauma.
That brings us to the third issue that the body of knowledge tells us.
Control measures can be thought of as organisational-level, such as job redesign, access to work resources, or organisational restructuring, or as individual-level, such as resilience training, cognitive behavioural therapy or access to counselling services. An intersection of empirical studies and WHS law means that the most suitable control measures will be a combination of organisational and individual-level measures, but importantly, that individual-level measures are unlikely to be sufficient on their own. This is because the best control measures focus on eliminating and reducing the source of the risk – the work design and management.
So again, three things the body of knowledge tells us to help weigh up ‘what is reasonably practicable’: one, ensure measures are matched to the problem risk factors in the high risk parts of the business, and ensure interventions are not solely at the individual-level.
I hope I have shown you that when breaking down the five elements of ‘what is reasonably practicable’ to ensure psychological health and safety, that we have a considerable body of knowledge behind us that helps us determine whether it really is ‘just not practical for my business to make changes to the way we work,’ or whether there are indeed a number of very practical steps that businesses can, and are often duty bound to take.
What is reasonably practicable when ensuring psychological health and safety is relatively clear and implementing these steps should never mean that businesses are less competitive. Indeed the best risk control measures for ensuring psychological health and safety have measurable productivity benefits, most commonly manifested as a decrease in absenteeism or turnover. These benefits can be reaped, not only by those who may be experiencing harm from exposure to psychosocial hazards but for the entire workforce. When you consider the base prevalence of mental health disorders, these benefits may be significant for your business.
Perhaps for this reason, compliance aside, businesses may consider that:
it’s just not practical NOT to be making changes to the way work is designed and managed.
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