What are psychosocial hazards and how can local governments manage them in the workplace?

Risk Matters - Autumn 2024

Picture of Katherine Kempin

Katherine Kempin

Senior People Risk Consultant at LGIS
Katherine is Senior People Risk Consultant at LGIS and provides a variety of professional health and safety advice and support services to local governments in Western Australia. Her role involves liaising with members on work health and safety matters to identify areas of concern and tailor functional solutions for effective risk management, legislative compliance and ultimately harm prevention

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The Work Health and Safety Act 2020 (WA) explicitly addresses psychological injury and the management of the psychosocial hazards that may cause them. For many members these are unfamiliar terms and concepts and LGIS has received plenty of questions about them.

  • Put simply psychosocial hazards are anything in the workplace that may cause psychological harm. Examples of psychosocial hazards include:
  • Excessive work demands Unhealthy workplace relationships Excessive emotional demands
  • Low job control
  • Poor organisational justice
  • Poor recognition and reward

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How to get started - managing psychosocial hazards

The first step is to adopt a risk management approach (RMA) – it’s the same technique used for physical hazards. An RMA is a tool to identify and address the causal factors and systematic issues that may exist in the workplace. It can be done at individual, team, and organisational levels.

DIAGRAM: Risk management approach process

Step 1 – Identify

This step has three elements – preparation, data, and consultation. Preparation could consider who needs to participate, confidentiality and any reference material that may be needed. The data element may look at the information that’s already available, incident reports, complaints, absenteeism rates, turnover, survey results, direct observation, workplace change and previous assessments. The last part, consultation, incorporates focus groups, staff surveys or individual interviews.

Step 2 – Assess the risk

Once the hazards have been identified it’s time to assess them. What is the likelihood and severity of injury/harm occurring due to the identified hazard/risk? This is where a risk matrix tool will help identify whether there is a low to extreme risk and the potential consequences from insignificant to catastrophic.

Be prepared to answer questions like who might be impacted by the risk/hazard, what is causing the hazard, what is the duration and frequency of exposure and how urgently is an action required.

DIAGRAM: Hierachy of controls

Step 3 – Control risks (hierarchy of control)

Now that you’ve worked out which risks are most serious and have the potential to cause the most harm it’s time to look at implementing controls. The hierarchy of controls model provides guidance on the three levels of control. In a perfect world all hazards will be eliminated, and every effort should be made to do this if it is reasonably practicable to do so. Where this is not possible then controls should be implemented to reduce the harm the hazard may cause if workers were to be exposed to it.

Step 4 – Review the control measures

The last step is one that’s often forgotten, but it’s equally important as the other three. Often a control may be implemented and have unintended consequences or even cause new hazards. Identify which controls are working, and which ones need to be improved due to not being as effective as possible.

Case study – a stressed finance team

Let’s apply a risk management approach to this case study.

The workers in the finance department at the Shire of Westralia, are responsible for managing the financial operations and budgets of various departments and programs.

Lately, the department has faced several challenges – a long term employee with lots of knowledge has retired and the Shire is struggling to find a replacement, and the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) will be auditing them in three months.

The workers must meet strict deadlines and ensure accuracy in financial reporting. There are few resources and support, limited training opportunities, and outdated technology.

Workers often find themselves working long hours and experiencing high levels of stress to keep up with the demands of their roles.

Step 1: Identify

The Safety Officer works with the Deputy CEO, and reviews WorkSafe WA’s regulations on psychosocial hazards and calls the LGIS People Risk Team for advice on how to get started.
They ensure confidentiality and decide to do one-on-one interviews with members of the finance team, look at complaints, review role descriptions, study leave rates, and consider recent changes in the workplace.

Through this process they identify the following hazards:

  • High/excessive job demands
  • Low levels of control, that is staff feel like they don’t have a lot of say around how/when they do their work
  • Inadequate support both emotionally and practically
  • Poor organisational change management, lack of support and planning with the retirement of long-serving staff members.

Step 2: Assess the risk

The first hazard they assess is ‘high/excessive work demands’. They use a risk matrix to determine the severity of the risk. It’s decided that since staff are already reporting high work demands that the likelihood is ‘almost certain’. Staff have said that they’ve been feeling like this for about four weeks and that the OAG audit will increase the workload.

The consequence is ranked as ‘Moderate’ – indicating that staff may experience stress which could impact their overall wellbeing both physical and psychological. Ultimately, this is a ‘High’ risk hazard.

Step 3: Control the risk

It’s a priority to address this psychosocial hazard given its risk rating. The Safety Officer and Deputy CEO consider a variety of organisational and risk minimisation controls. They decide that they will:

Organisational controls

  • Review job design so that workload is manageable and evenly distributed.
  • Review job design so that tasks are realistically achievable Plan to provide adequate resources

Risk minimisation control measures

  • Promote self-care and positive mental health practices during peak periods
  • Provide workers with sufficient breaks and self-care time
  • Encourage them to use leave entitlements after high-demand periods
  • Talk to workers and explore how the risk can be reduced or work delivery improved to avoid overload.
  • Notice signs that workers are struggling and intervene early. This could include EAP counselling, changing the tasks the person must complete…etc.
  • Train and develop workers to increase efficiencies and competencies.

Step 4: Review the control measures

The Safety Officer and Deputy CEO agree to review the control measures in two months. They aim to immediately implement some measures to reduce overload and then implement more longer-term controls such as training to develop efficiency and competencies.

For more information on how to adopt a risk management approach, please get in touch with our People Risk Manager, Emma Horsefield at [email protected]
or 0407 957932.

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