Code of Practice: Managing psychosocial hazards at work
SafeWork NSW has developed the Code of Practice for Managing psychosocial hazards at work (‘the Code’). It is an approved Code of Practice under section 274 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act).
You should use this code of practice if you have functions or responsibilities that involve managing, so far as is reasonably practicable, exposure to psychosocial hazards and risks to psychological and physical health and safety at work.
No business ever wants to see their workers harmed just because they did their job. This video was developed in conjunction with the Code’s launch in May 2021 and provides a brief overview (45 seconds).
This code of practice on how to manage psychosocial hazards at work is an approved code of practice under section 274 of the New South Wales Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act).
An approved code of practice provides practical guidance on how to achieve compliance with the work health and safety standards required under the WHS Act and the Work Health and Safety Regulation (WHS Regulation), including effective ways to identify and manage risks.
A code of practice applies to anyone who has a duty of care in the circumstances described in the code of practice. In most cases, following an approved code of practice will assist the duty holder in achieving compliance with the health and safety duties in the WHS Act and WHS Regulation concerning the code’s subject matter
Like regulations, codes of practice tend to deal with particular risks, and do not cover all hazards or risks that may arise. The health and safety duties require duty holders to consider all risks associated with work, not only those for which regulations and codes of practice exist.
Codes of practice are admissible in court proceedings under the WHS Act and the WHS Regulation. Courts may regard a code of practice as evidence of what is known about a hazard, risk or control and may rely on the code in determining what is reasonably practicable in the circumstances to which the code relates. For further information, see Safe Work Australia How to determine what is reasonably practicable to meet a Health and Safety Duty.
Compliance with the WHS Act and WHS Regulation may be achieved by following another method if this achieves an equivalent or higher standard of safety than set out in this code.
An inspector may refer to an approved code of practice when issuing an improvement or prohibition notice.
Scope and application
This code is intended to be read by persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) and those who have duties under the WHS Act. It provides practical guidance on the process a PCBU could use to identify and to manage psychosocial hazards at work. You should use this code of practice if you have functions or responsibilities that involve managing, so far as is reasonably practicable, exposure to psychosocial hazards and risks to psychological and physical health and safety at work.
The code may also be a useful reference for other persons interested in complying with the duties under the WHS Act and WHS Regulation. Examples in this code identify actions a PCBU, an officer of a PCBU, a worker, or other persons should take, but which by themselves may not be sufficient to fulfil a PCBU’s obligations or a worker’s or other person’s responsibility under WHS legislation.
This code applies to all work and workplaces covered by the WHS Act. Throughout this code, the reasonably practicable limitation under section 18 of the WHS Act applies to the general duty.
How to use this Code of Practice and key terms
This code includes references to requirements under the WHS Act and WHS Regulation. These are included for convenience only and should not be relied on in place of the full text of the WHS Act or WHS Regulation. Codes of practice do not create new WHS duties, nor do they extend any existing duties, but rather explain how to meet those duties.
The words ‘must’ or ‘require’ indicates that a legal requirement exists and must be met, ‘should’ indicates a recommended course of action, and ‘may’ an optional course of action. This code’s advice covers the prevention of exposure to psychosocial hazards at work, which may create psychological or physical health and safety risks.
A duty holder means any person who owes a duty under the WHS Act, including a PCBU with management and control of a business, or a designer, manufacturer, importer, supplier, installer of products or plant used at work (upstream duty holder), or officer or a worker.
A worker means any person who carries out work for a PCBU, including work as an employee, contractor or subcontractor (or their employee), self-employed person, outworker, apprentice or trainee, work experience student, an employee of a labour-hire company placed with a ‘host PCBU’, or a volunteer. Managers and supervisors are also workers.
A PCBU also owes a duty of care to persons other than their workers whose health or safety may be put at risk – that is, to any person who may be affected by the business operations such as visitors, customers or members of the public.
A workplace means any place where work is carried out for a business or undertaking, or where a worker goes, or is likely to be, while at work.
Work health and safety (WHS) hazards are anything that can cause harm. Risk means the possibility of harm (death, injury or illness) which might occur if a worker is exposed to a hazard. Control measures (controls) are actions taken to eliminate or minimise WHS hazards and risks.
The WHS Act defines ‘health’ as including both physical and psychological health. A PCBU has a primary duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers and also to ensure that other persons are not put at risk from work carried out arising from the business or undertaking.
When psychosocial hazards and risks at work are not effectively managed, this may increase the risk of work-related psychological and physical injuries, incidents and errors. Therefore, it may be helpful when assessing the risk of musculoskeletal and traumatic injury to consider the psychosocial hazards and risks and controls noted in the code.
Ensuring a systematic process to manage psychosocial hazards and risks will help the PCBU and duty holder meet their WHS responsibilities. It will also decrease organisational disruptions and costs resulting from work-related harm and may improve WHS and broader organisational performance and productivity.
1.1 What are the common psychosocial hazards at work?
Psychosocial hazards at work are aspects of work and situations that may cause a stress response which in turn can lead to psychological or physical harm. These stem from:
- the way the tasks or job are designed, organised, managed and supervised
- tasks or jobs where there are inherent psychosocial hazards and risks
- the equipment, working environment or requirements to undertake duties in physically hazardous environments, and
- social factors at work, workplace relationships and social interactions.
Psychosocial hazards and the appropriate controls will vary for every workplace and sometimes between groups of workers depending on the:
- organisational context to work (e.g. economic pressures, type and size of the business, organisational structure and culture, environmental conditions, technologies, and business activities, products and services, supply chains and contractual arrangements, workers’ skills and attributes and workplace relationships) and
- content of the work (workload, workers’ roles, responsibilities and activities required to deliver the product or service).
Some hazards by themselves have the potential to cause serious harm, such as experiencing occupational violence. In most circumstances, hazards will not occur alone but together with a range of psychosocial and physical hazards. As part of the risk assessment process the frequency and duration of exposure to psychosocial hazards will need to be considered. The more psychosocial hazards that are present, the more likely there is for harm to occur.
Some of the most common psychosocial hazards are noted in Table 1. There may be hazards not relevant to your work or relevant to your work but not included. These will be identified through your hazard and risk identification process.
Table 1 Common psychosocial hazards
Role overload (high workloads or job demands)
For example, where there is:
- too much to do in a set time or with insufficient workers or other resources
- unachievable task deadlines, expectations or responsibilities
- unpredictable shifts or hours of work, shift structures or rosters that do not allow adequate time for workers to recover
- frequent cognitively difficult work
- multiple tasks that require repeated rapid switching between each to complete them, so it is difficult to concentrate
- where there is sustained or frequent exposure to emotionally distressing situations
- tasks that require workers to continually show false displays of emotion, e.g. customer service roles
- tasks and decisions that are safety critical and that may have a serious impact on the health and safety of workers and others.
Role underload (low workloads or job demands)
Where there is sustained low effort required, for example:
- tasks or jobs where there is routinely too little to do
- highly repetitive or monotonous work (like picking and packing products, monitoring production lines).
Exposure to traumatic events
Where workers provide care to those experiencing a traumatic event or listen to, view, or read detailed descriptions of harrowing and traumatic events experienced by others. For example:
- emergency responders or health care workers
- rape crisis and child protection workers, officers of the court, lawyers or immigration officers etc
- experiencing, witnessing, or investigating a serious near miss, injury or workplace fatality.
Role conflict or lack of role clarity
For example, where there are:
- conflicting priorities within roles (e.g. providing ‘good customer service’, but with insufficient time allowed to spend with customers)
- uncertainty around roles, tenure, tasks and work schedules and standards (frequent changes, lack of clear explanations to role or tasks, important task-related information/training is not available, or not providing a clear performance agreement or reporting requirements).
Low job control
For example, where workers:
- have little control over how they do their work, when they can change tasks or take breaks
- are not involved in decisions that affect their work or clients
- are unable to speak up about WHS, and the way work is done.
Note: Where the safety or quality requirements need to be strictly prescribed, there is likely to be more limited opportunities for worker input into decision making, however workers must still be consulted.
Conflict or poor workplace relationships between workers and their supervisors and managers and co-workers
For example, where there are:
- frequent disagreements about how work should be done
- frequent interpersonal workplace conflict
- harmful workplace behaviours.
Conflict can be stressful, especially where the consequences of miscommunication can lead to additional time pressures or serious errors. Conflict can escalate if it is not dealt with promptly and fairly and if steps are not taken to address poor, unacceptable or harmful behaviours.
Poor support from supervisors and managers
For example, where there is:
- inadequate information, advice and help with work tasks or to resolve issues, or access to necessary equipment and resources
- performance feedback or other management action which is unreasonable or delivered in an unreasonable manner. See also clarification on reasonable management action.
Poor co-worker support
For example, where there is:
- inadequate information, advice and help to complete tasks, and support for work-related matters from co-workers.
Including, by workers, clients, patients, visitors or others. For example, see Safe Work Australia Guide: Preventing workplace violence and aggression; and Workplace violence and aggression – guidance for small business, and Workplace violence and aggression – advice for workers.
Incidents of bullying by workers, clients, patients, visitors or others. For example, see SafeWork Australia: Guide for preventing and responding to workplace bullying, and Dealing with workplace bullying – a worker’s guide.
Harassment including sexual harassment
Single or repeated incidents of forms of harassment by co-workers, clients, patients, visitors or others around a person’s race, religion, gender, age, disability etc. For example see information from Safe Work Australia: Guide: Preventing workplace sexual harassment and Preventing workplace sexual harassment – guidance for small business and Workplace sexual harassment – advice for workers.
Inadequate reward and recognition
For example, where:
- workers’ efforts are not recognised
- there aren’t reasonable opportunities for skills development and fair career advancement.
Hazardous physical working environments
Where there is exposure to hazardous physical working environments to the extent that it evokes a physiological or stress response. For example, due to concerns about exposure to biological or chemical agents where there is inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
Remote or isolated work
Arising from the location, time or the nature of the job. For example:
- where there is limited access to other people, reliable communication or technology to get physical and emotional support, if required
- working alone or in other peoples’ homes if accessing help, especially in an emergency, is difficult (such as, where there is potential exposure to violent or aggressive behaviour).
Poor procedural justice (processes for making decisions)
Where there are absent or inadequate, unfair or inconsistent application of the processes, for example:
- applying organisational policies or procedures (for example, fair access to preferred shifts or overtime)
- allocating work and resources, or
- managing job performance.
Poor organisational change consultation
For example, where there is:
- poor consultation or communication with other relevant duty holders or affected workers about significant changes
- insufficient consideration of the impact of changes on WHS and performance
- poor practical support for affected workers during change implementation.
If inappropriate or harmful workplace relationships and behaviours are identified, the PCBU should record these as psychosocial hazards and investigate work-related contributing causes. In some circumstances, poor workplace behaviours may be an inappropriate response to high job demands or inadequate support (e.g. excessive time pressures, lack of role clarity or inadequate training and skills). To effectively control risks, duty holders will need to eliminate or minimise the underlying causes as well as directly addressing unacceptable or harmful behaviours.
Reasonable management action
Managing psychosocial hazards and risks may require decisions that may be perceived as causing stress and therefore a WHS risk. However, reasonable management action, when carried out lawfully and in a reasonable way, may be uncomfortable or distressing to some, but is a legitimate way for managers and supervisors to:
- lead, direct and control how work is done
- give feedback and manage performance, including around inappropriate or harmful workplace behaviours
- deal with differences of opinion and disagreements, or/and
- recruit, assign, transfer, implement disciplinary action or terminate employment.
For more information refer to Fair Work Commission guidance material What does ‘reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner’ mean?
1.2 Individual Factors
While the psychosocial hazards outlined above influence the likelihood and severity of harm, there may be individual differences in how people perceive and respond to the same psychosocial hazards, just as there are with physical hazards.
When managing psychosocial hazards, the PCBU should take into account tasks and activities that may increase risks to particular groups, for example, workers:
- who are younger, in training, older, or who are new to the organisation or doing those tasks
- with diverse language, literacy, numeracy, or cultural backgrounds, or
- who have experienced work-related injury, illness or previous exposure to a traumatic event.
The PCBU’s risk management process should:
- identify reasonably foreseeable risks for these workers
- ensure risk controls take these workers’ needs into account, and
- ensure a fair and transparent process, so workplace behavioural standards are known and upheld, including reminding all workers of their legal duty not to cause harm through their behaviours to others or themselves while at work.
By talking to your workers, including those from at-risk groups, you can decide if they may need additional support to be healthy and safe at work.
Where non-work-related factors, for example, a worker’s personal circumstances or mental or physical health status may increase their risk of harm at work, the PCBU is required to make reasonable adjustments under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.