In your business, how much attention do you give to ensuring the mental wellbeing of your people?  As well as typical Health and Safety plans outlining how to avoid physical harm in the workplace, do you also have plans in place to mitigate psychosocial risks?  

Over the last year, following amendments to their national Work and Health Safety Act, several States and Territories in Australia implemented regulations regarding ‘psychosocial risks’.  If you are not familiar with this term (and you aren’t alone!) a psychosocial hazard includes ‘anything at work that may cause psychological harm’. The specifics will look different depending on the industry, and type of work being undertaken, but as an example, one such hazard is work-related stress.

Given the close nature of the Australian and New Zealand legal systems, we are keeping an eye on developments locally,  and are very interested to see whether these new regulations have an impact here in Aotearoa— and to what extent.

We believe these changes are ones you should be cognizant of because they have a significant impact on the role of both a leader, and organisations, in providing a safe work environment.  It’s worth noting also that a ‘safe work environment’ describes what is currently a highly topical, prominent subject; preventing employee burnout.  

Barry Nilsson Lawyers has released a useful article about psychosocial hazards and the common risk factors, which are summarised below.

Common risk factors of psychosocial hazards

  • Workload – including both having too much or too little work to complete within usual business hours
  • Poor relationships, supervision and support – including equipment and resources and support from supervisors and co-workers
  • Poor organisational justice - including workplaces where there is inconsistency in the implementation of procedures and poor management of underperformers
  • Lack of career development and/or recognition - imbalance between the effort workers put in and the recognition or reward they get, either formally or informally
  • Role ambiguity – being unclear as to a worker’s job, responsibilities or what is expected
  • Role conflict – changing deadlines or contradictory instructions
  • Low levels of control and autonomy – having little say in the way that work is to be completed
  • Bullying, harassment and discrimination

Obviously providing a safe work environment, free from psychosocial hazards, is not just legally important, it’s also the right thing to do as a good employer.

Impacts of stress and burnout

As I am sure you are aware, there is much discussion in industry, and many articles published (including by The People Place) about about excess stress in the workplace and the potential impacts. These can include loss of sleep, a gateway to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, or may manifest in physical effects such as headaches. When you have stressed and burnt-out employees, the subsequent business impacts are serious. They range from reduced engagement, negative impacts on workplace culture, increased absenteeism and sick leave, and ultimately, to reduced productivity.

On the agenda

You’ll notice these are common management concerns in business, and often touted as key issues for attention within larger corporates.  It’s true that in many businesses, support after the fact is provided—but it’s unclear whether the same impetus or energy has been given to address root causes. Workplace stress can be seen as an issue that’s ‘always been around’. But is it sufficient, or acceptable in the current age, to continue doing things in the same way?  These new Australian regulations challenge this paradigm. When you read through the common risk factors outlined above, I believe they provide a clear indication that moving forward, excess stress and burnout will not be acceptable. There’s a real spotlight on employers, now tasked with better managing these issues.

Managing risks

Under the new regulations in Australia, a person ‘conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBU) ‘must manage the risk of psychosocial hazards in the workplace by either eliminating psychosocial risks completely, or if that is not reasonably practicable, minimising them as much as possible’. Take a moment to think about your own team or  business. Are your managers prepared to lead their people through these types of challenges? If we look at the common risk factors above, I suggest reflecting on whether the managers in your business are adequately equipped to lead their teams in a way that mitigates psychosocial risk.  

Do your managers know how to:
  • Set achievable workloads and provide clarity on priorities
  • Develop good working relationships with staff, and provide sufficient support, equipment and resources
  • Provide consistency in the implementation of procedures, and effectively manage underperformers. This is a big issue, that we see frequently. We will dedicate a future blog post to the topic of poor performers and the whole-workforce impact of not managing them well, so check back soon for that resource
  • Support career development and provide recognition – and do your managers have the freedom to provide recognition and reward for high performers?
  • Provide clarity on what is expected of an employee in their role, describing what ‘good’ looks like
  • Provide stability, consistency and clarity (We’ve all had those managers who change their mind at the drop of a hat, it’s exhausting!)
  • Enable autonomy, with sufficient guidelines, clarity and support to enable employees to effectively deliver to the provided objectives of the role

How did you go at answering these questions?   If you’ve got some gaps, please be assured, you won’t be the only business with work to do in this space.

If New Zealand follows the Australian model, then managing all psychosocial risks adequately will become much more than a managerial nice-to have, but instead will be a legal, health and safety requirement.  If employees suffer from burnout, then it’s possible the employer may be liable. It certainly is interesting to see the developments in the protection of mental health in the workplace.

We know it can also be stressful to be a business owner or leader facing big legal requirements, so please be assured we are available for support and advice. You can call us on +64 9 300 7224 or email us at hello@thepeopleplace.