The effects of work-related stress

Guidance to help employers understand psychosocial hazards, the effects of work-related stress and how to comply with their obligations to keep workplaces safe.

Psychosocial hazards

Psychosocial hazards are factors in the design or management of work that increase the risk of work-related stress and can lead to psychological or physical harm. Examples of psychosocial hazards might include poor supervisor support or high job demands.

Employees are likely to be exposed to a combination of psychosocial hazards. Some hazards might always be present at work, while others only occasionally. There is a greater risk of work-related stress when psychosocial hazards combine and act together, so employers should not consider hazards in isolation.

Psychosocial hazards do not necessarily reveal the causes of work-related stress. Causes are likely to be specific to the employee, work or workplace. Senior management should identify which psychosocial hazards negatively affect employees' health and well-being and take appropriate action to control the impact of those hazards.

Initial signs of negative health impacts

Early signs of negative health impacts from exposure to psychosocial hazards may include:

Physical

  • headaches
    • indigestion
      • tiredness
        • problems sleeping
          • slow reactions
            • shortness of breath
              • nausea

                Psychological

                • difficulty making decisions
                  • forgetfulness
                    • difficulty in concentrating
                      • memory lapses

                        Emotional

                        • irritability
                          • excess worrying
                            • feelings of worthlessness
                              • anxiety
                                • defensiveness
                                  • anger
                                    • mood swings
                                      • feelings of dread

                                        Behavioural

                                        • diminished performance
                                          • withdrawal from work
                                            • not engaging at work
                                              • impulsive behaviour
                                                • sleeping problems
                                                  • increase in alcohol or nicotine consumption
                                                    • using prescription or non-prescription drugs

                                                      Injuries and illness from exposure to stressful work-related factors

                                                      Examples of psychological injuries that may arise from or be exacerbated by exposure to psychosocial hazards include:

                                                      • depression
                                                        • anxiety
                                                          • burnout
                                                            • emotional distress
                                                              • self-harm or suicidal thoughts
                                                                • trauma or stressor-related disorders
                                                                  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

                                                                    There can also be physical consequences from exposure to psychosocial hazards, such as increased risk of:

                                                                    • cardiovascular disease
                                                                      • musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)
                                                                        • immune deficiency
                                                                          • gastrointestinal disorders

                                                                            Possible effects on performance

                                                                            Increased exposure to psychosocial hazards can affect performance and lead to, for example:

                                                                            • reduced productivity and efficiency
                                                                              • decline in job satisfaction, morale and team unity
                                                                              • increased absenteeism
                                                                                • increased staff turnover
                                                                                  • avoidable/unexplained errors
                                                                                    • increased incidents and injuries
                                                                                      • increased conflict
                                                                                        • decline in the quality of relationships
                                                                                          • reduced client satisfaction
                                                                                            • increased health care expenditure and employee compensation claims

                                                                                              Work-related stress and your legal duties

                                                                                              Employer obligations

                                                                                              The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires employers to comply with various duties, so far as reasonably practicable, to ensure health and safety in their workplace.

                                                                                              Employers' duties include obligations to:

                                                                                              • provide and maintain a working environment for employees that is safe and without risks to their health, including psychological health. This duty includes –
                                                                                                • providing and maintaining safe systems of work
                                                                                                • providing information, instruction, training and supervision so employees can perform their work safely and without risks to health
                                                                                              • monitor the conditions of workplaces under the employer's management and control
                                                                                                • monitor employee health
                                                                                                  • consult with employees and any health and safety representatives (HSRs) when doing certain things, for example, identifying or assessing hazards or risks and making decisions about measures to control those risks
                                                                                                    • attempt to resolve health and safety issues in line with any relevant agreed procedure or the relevant procedure prescribed by the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations)

                                                                                                      In order to comply with their duties, employers:

                                                                                                      • must consult with employees and HSRs to identify or assess hazards or risks to health and safety at a workplace under the employer's management and control, including work-related factors that can cause or contribute to stress
                                                                                                        • where a risk has been identified, either eliminate the risk or implement measures to control it so far as is reasonably practicable
                                                                                                          • following a report/injury/incident involving stress, need to investigate whether work-related factors contributed
                                                                                                            • need to review and revise risk control measures

                                                                                                              The definition of 'health' under the OHS Act includes 'psychological health', therefore any reference to OHS obligations in relation to the health of employees extends to their psychological health.

                                                                                                              Employee obligations

                                                                                                              Employees have a duty, while at work, to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, and to take reasonable care for the health and safety of people who might be affected by their acts or omissions in the workplace. Employees also have a duty to cooperate with their employer's actions to comply with requirements under the OHS Act and OHS Regulations.

                                                                                                              More information about legal duties

                                                                                                              The WorkSafe website has more information about legal duties, the OHS Act and OHS Regulations, as well as information about how WorkSafe applies the law in relation to reasonably practicable.

                                                                                                              Reasonably practicable

                                                                                                              Whether particular risk control measures are reasonably practicable depends on the specific workplace circumstances. For more information on what is 'reasonably practicable' when complying with Part 3 of the OHS Act, refer to WorkSafe's position on how WorkSafe applies the law in relation to reasonably practicable.