Mental Health in the Workplace

READ ON this insight takes a brief look into emerging and current impacts of work related mental health and psychological risks and what guidance material is available to manage these risks. It also provides some thoughts on the future of mental health based on data from the last 5-10 years.

Where are we now?

Just over a quarter (26%) quarter of Australians will experience anxiety in their lifetime, and 1 in 7 (15%) experience depression and many statistics are available from Beyond Blue and The Australian Bureau of Statistics.

According to SafeWork Australia (Workers Compensation Statistics 2018-19) it has been reported that 9% of all serious worker’s compensation claims are for mental health conditions. Interestingly the average cost per claim of $35,900 (Mental Health conditions 2017-18) is almost 3 times the median cost of all serious claims ($12,600). Whilst the percentage of mental health conditions is around one tenth of all claims (9%), the costs associated with mental health conditions are significantly larger (300%) that of other serious claims. Its worth keeping in mind this data is a few years old and we haven’t been able to access any published data that incorporates the effects that COVID 19 has had on the workplace mental health in more recent times.

For time lost at work due to serious claims, mental health conditions result in the largest time away from work per claim (Median of 20.8 weeks). This is 3 times more than the average of 6.2 weeks for all other claims. It’s the number one claim for most time lost from work.

Alarmingly mental health conditions, much like other health related disease, can be hidden and may not be obvious to many unlike a traumatic injury. In terms of what the future holds, looking at the data and extrapolating the trend.

Let’s look at the trend from the last 5 years data on costs associated with mental health claims. Where will it end up?

Extrapolating the data for time lost due to mental health conditions. The graph looks something like this:

We can argue a trend is emerging. It is a cause for workplaces to stand up, take notice and take action now. Simply having an EAP program or a link to counselling services is simply not enough to manage the risks. We know that good and proper risk management starts with identifying the hazards and associated risk/s, assessing the risks and importantly implementing controls that aim to (primarily) prevent risks .

The NOPSEMA guide on Managing Psychosocial Risks is a handy resource as it targets the design of work with a human factors lens and is written to be easily understood and how it fits into a broader workplace health and safety management system. It aims to change our focus from reactive approaches to the proactive processes by systematically identifying, preventing and managing mental health and workplace psychological risks. So what could we do? Where are some good information sources?

We have legal duties to manage WHS risk and we know it’s just good business to formally (i.e. systematically) identify and manage mental health hazards and risks.

The first steps are to identify the potential mental health / psychological work related hazards and risks. The Safe Work Australia guide on Work Related Psychological Health and Safety, the NOPSEMA Managing Psychosocial Risks Guide or the NSW Code of Practice for Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work provides useful guidance and can be adopted. There could be many contributing factors to psychosocial risks in the workplace and some common items include (but not limited to) :

· high or too low job demands, · constant deadlines/work pressures, · low control of job/work tasks, · poor support, · poor change management including organisational change, · low reward and recognition, · poor management of justice, · remote and isolated work (Include work from home), · violent or traumatic events; · role ambiguity.

A number of these can be attributed to poor work design and a human factors (HF) perspective is valuable in re-designing work and preventing occurrence.

We also have a new ISO standard that at first glance looks good in terms of ensuring there is a systematic approach to managing psychological and psychosocial risks at work (ISO 45003 Occupational health and safety management – Psychological health and safety at work: managing psychosocial risks – Guidelines). Aligning with ISO45001, it’s the first standard if its kind adopted Internationally that formalises a management system approach to psychosocial risks.

This standard outlines a systems based approach and builds on the Safe Work Australia guidance material and provides more in depth analysis of causes of psychological risks in the workplace and importantly ensuring worker wellbeing.

NOPSEMA's guide with good practical guidance on Managing Psychosocial risks and it’s definitely worth a look. Although still in draft its probably one of the more useful as it cuts through to provide improved practical guidance. It appears to take a more human factors focus, including targeting the management approach to the systematic identification of psychosocial risks that could trigger or be implicit in major accident events. It also provides good examples of the four levels of controls that follow sound risk management principles.

What can we learn from current guidance?

Guidance takes a whole of workplace and lifecycle approach to the identification of hazards and risks related to psychological, assessment of the risks as well as controls aimed at elimination/prevention. This consideration of lifecycles including supply chain, procurement and contracting, scheduling and management of schedules, routines in the work day/shift, soft measures such as people competence, awareness and support, work locations, demographic of the workforce, rapid technology changes, nature of work contracts and more.

The standard highlights the importance of leadership in its approach as well as competence in persons within the workplace to be able to administer such as system. To date, this offers preferred guidance, including a well thought out approach to the prevention and management of mental health work related risks but it is aimed at re-design or review of existing processes and applying a mental health filter to challenging existing norms. This requires leadership and commitment to drive change needed.

Where do we start?

Establishing risk-based tools and undertaking targeted risk assessment should be a starting point for organisations. Firstly, start by identifying the types of triggers that could result in mental health work related hazards and risks and formulate this into a formal risk assessment output (risk register or similar).

Structured models are valuable and may assist with understanding causation paths and risk escalation factors and specific consideration of preventative controls primarily and then mitigative controls. This may trigger much broader application of work design practices including reviewing management of change especially relating to organisational changes.

People at Work is government resource and another valuable platform that provides information for creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. Account registration is needed but it has a good library of resources and information to assist.

What will be required?

We expect a systematic approach is critical to managing mental health in the workplace and we acknowledge that leadership will remains a core driver in challenging existing processes and building organisational cultures that prioritise mental health and well-being.

Leaders in this space will need to be transparent and acknowledge where their organisations can be better, whilst ensuring demonstrated commitment by enabling targeted programs and supporting resources that focus on developing organisational capability around work design and change management.

AusSafe’s experience is that the risk is not being addressed in systematic manner and with effective application of risk management theory. We anticipate the need for multi-disciplinary input and the involvement of allied health professionals and other subject matter experts to address the need.

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