Managing coronavirus (COVID-19) risks: Mental health at work

The current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic can cause heightened anxiety and stress for employees. Employers have a responsibility to support employees and control risks to employees’ psychological health associated with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Restrictions apply in metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria

Depending on your industry your workplace may:

  • be required to be closed for onsite work
  • remain open for onsite work with a completed COVIDSafe Plan or High Risk COVIDSafe Plan
  • be subject to restricted operations or industry specific obligations.

These restrictions may be updated at any time. You must stay up to date with any changes for your industry.

How are my OHS obligations impacted by the restrictions?

There is no change to your obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) and Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) as a result of the restrictions.

Preparation of a COVIDSafe Plan forms part of the development of a safe system of work, however having a COVIDSafe Plan and complying with Chief Health Officer Directions does not necessarily mean you have complied with your duties under the OHS Act and OHS Regulations.

You must follow any health directions that apply to how your business must operate as well as ensure that you are meeting your obligations under the OHS Act. Employees must also comply with their duties under the OHS Act.

Employer duties

Employers must provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health and safety for employees, including independent contractors, so far as is reasonably practicable.

This includes any risks to psychological health and also applies when an employee works from a location other than their normal workplace, such as their home.

Employers must:

  • identify psychosocial hazards
    • assess the risk of physical and psychological harm associated with the hazard, and
      • implement measures to eliminate or reduce the risks, so far as reasonably practicable.

        Employers must also consult with employees and health and safety representatives (HSRs), so far as is reasonably practicable, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect or are likely to directly affect them. This includes consulting on decisions about working from a location other than the usual workplace, and the associated risks and controls.

        More information about employer and employee obligations is set out below (see Legal duties).

        Identifying psychosocial hazards from coronavirus (COVID-19)

        Coronavirus (COVID-19) is changing the way many people work and live. Feeling uncertain, overwhelmed, scared, sad, confused or angry is common and expected. These feelings may be heightened for a number of work-related reasons, such as changes to the work environment, increased demand or pressures, reduced job security or isolation.

        There are a number of work-related factors, also known as psychosocial hazards, within the control of employers that can impact employees' mental health and safety. A psychosocial hazard is anything in the design or management of work that increases the risk of work-related stress.

        Work-related stress is the physical or psychological response of a person who perceives that the demand of their work or workplace environment exceed their ability or resources to cope.

        Mental Health

        Mental health is a state of wellbeing that allows people to realise their potential while coping with the ordinary challenges of life. Good mental health supports people to thrive in their life, work and relationships with others. Meanwhile, mental ill-health can negatively impact these parts of our lives in a significant way.

        An increased risk to psychological health may occur due to:

        • isolated work, for example where employees are working from home
          • low support, for example, employees working in isolation may feel they do not have the normal support they would receive to do their jobs or where work demands have dramatically increased, workplaces may not be able to offer the same level of support
            • low role clarity, for example, employees may not be clear how working from home has changed expectations around when they are working, or if their goals or tasks have shifted
              • difficulty separating work and home life (leisure time, time with family, sleep), if working from home
                • low recognition and reward or loss of meaning and purpose, which may occur when working remotely
                  • poor organisational change, for example, if businesses are restructuring or changing roles and responsibilities to address the effects of coronavirus (COVID-19) but are not providing adequate training, information or support to employees
                    • stress or anxiety about potential exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) or if an outbreak occurs in the workplace.

                      Workplace bullying

                      Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed at an employee or groups of employees that creates a risk to health and safety.

                      Workplace bullying can happen in any workplace. Under certain conditions, anyone could be capable of bullying-type behaviour. Employers should ensure that systems of work to prevent and respond to workplace bullying are adequate for employees working remotely.

                      An increased risk to workplace bullying can occur due to:

                      • organisational change
                        • working in isolation
                          • lack of supervision
                            • lack of support.

                              Work-related fatigue

                              Fatigue is an acute and/or ongoing state of tiredness that leads to mental or physical exhaustion and prevents people from functioning within normal boundaries. Fatigue can affect an employee’s health and increase the chance of physical and psychological workplace injuries.

                              An increased risk of work-related fatigue may occur due to:

                              • increased work demand
                                • low job demand, for example, employees required to work reduced hours
                                  • concerns over job security.

                                    Work-related violence, gendered violence and sexual harassment

                                    Work-related violence is when a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in a situation related to their work. Work-related violence can come from anywhere – clients, customers, the public, co-workers and even employers.

                                    Work-related gendered violence is any behaviour, directed at any person, or that affects a person, because of their sex, gender, sexual orientation, or because they do not adhere to socially prescribed gender roles, that creates a risk to health and safety. Sexual harassment is a common form of gendered violence.

                                    Work-related violence can result in both physical and/or psychological harm to the person it is directed at and anyone witnessing the behaviour.

                                    An increased risk of work-related violence may occur due to:

                                    • increased isolation from regular sources of support
                                      • exposure to customer violence or aggression, for example in healthcare or supermarkets
                                        • increased stress and conflict in the community
                                          • businesses operating under new conditions, such as:
                                            • changes to processes
                                            • changes to operating hours
                                            • limits on the number of customers in stores
                                            • restrictions on products and services
                                            • physical distancing measures.

                                          Working from home

                                          Working in isolation can increase the risk of psychological harm. As well as the psychosocial hazards discussed above, risks can arise from other factors such as stress associated with caring for children, relationship strain, domestic violence, financial pressures or substance misuse.

                                          When initiating working from home arrangements, employers should consider and consult employees on all relevant risks and offer support to manage these, prior to putting changes in place.

                                          Controlling psychosocial risks

                                          Where a risk to health, including psychological health, is identified at a workplace, employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, eliminate the risk. Where it is not possible to eliminate the risk, it must be reduced, so far as is reasonably practicable.

                                          Current systems in place to control workplace mental health may no longer be accessible or may be more difficult for employees to access when working increased hours or in isolated working environments.

                                          Employers may need to develop new systems to create a positive, supportive and inclusive workplace for supporting mental health. Employers should consult employees and HSRs about systems to support mental health.

                                          Mental Health

                                          Control measures to address risks to psychological health may include:

                                          • consulting employees on any risks to their psychological health and how these can be managed
                                            • seeking and acting on feedback during the change process
                                              • regularly asking employees how they are and encouraging them to discuss any work-related concerns with you
                                                • acknowledging the difficulties of the current situation and understanding that these may be different for every employee
                                                  • informing workers about their entitlements if they become unfit for work or have caring responsibilities
                                                    • clarifying work expectations, ensuring workloads are realistic and acknowledging that new circumstances may impact this
                                                      • providing training and where possible, a buddy system for employees who need to adapt to a new work area or system, to ensure clarity and support
                                                        • where job demands have increased, increasing breaks, job rotation and task variation, providing appropriate and confidential channels to support workplace mental health and wellbeing, such as Employee Assistance Programs or digital mental health services, that can be accessed online or over the phone.

                                                          Workplace bullying

                                                          Workplace bullying can happen in any workplace. Under certain conditions, anyone could be capable of bullying-type behaviour. Employers should ensure that systems of work to prevent and respond to workplace bullying are adequate for employees working remotely.

                                                          Control measures may include:

                                                          • setting clear standards of behaviour and making it clear that bullying behaviour is not tolerated
                                                            • promoting a workplace culture that encourages respectful behaviour and communication
                                                              • making sure employees are aware of the expected standards of behaviour, reminding staff that expectations of behaviour cover all types of communication, including text messages, email and social media.

                                                                More information

                                                                Work-related fatigue

                                                                The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has changed working and living environments for many employees, which may increase the likelihood of mental or physical exhaustion, resulting in fatigue.

                                                                Control measures may include:

                                                                • reducing the amount of time workers need to spend performing physically and mentally demanding work
                                                                  • providing adequate breaks between shifts to allow workers enough recovery time (e.g. time needed for travelling, eating, sleeping and socialising)
                                                                    • ensuring there are adequate workers and other resources to do the job without placing excessive demands on employees
                                                                      • encouraging employees to effectively disengage from their work at the end of the day
                                                                        • providing training and information on fatigue management
                                                                          • developing a working-hours policy on daily work hours, maximum average weekly hours, total hours over a three-month period
                                                                            • developing roster rules to minimise fatigue and ensuring processes are in place to minimise breaches of roster rules, such as shift swaps and overtime
                                                                              • implementing processes to assess and report worker fatigue and psychological wellbeing.

                                                                                More information

                                                                                Work-related violence

                                                                                Employers should ensure that systems of work to prevent and respond to workplace work-related violence are adequate for employees working in new conditions.

                                                                                Control measures may include:

                                                                                • installing protective barriers or screens to separate employees from the public
                                                                                  • promoting a culture that does not accept violence or aggression
                                                                                    • displaying signs or posters to raise awareness and reinforce appropriate behaviour
                                                                                      • allocating resources for prevention and management
                                                                                        • encouraging reporting and acting on these reports
                                                                                          • investigating incidents and reviewing existing controls.

                                                                                            More information

                                                                                            Work-related gendered violence including sexual harassment

                                                                                            Employers should ensure that systems of work to prevent and respond to workplace work-related gendered violence and sexual harassment are adequate for employees working in new conditions.

                                                                                            Control measures may include:

                                                                                            • establishing and maintaining safe and inclusive workplace culture and systems where disrespect and incivility is not tolerated
                                                                                              • setting clear expectations about behaviours associated with gendered violence and sexual harassment, including appropriate use of emails, text messages or social media
                                                                                                • ensuring employees can safely access and leave the workplace, for example, adequate security and lighting
                                                                                                  • ensuring systems for managing, reporting and investigating incidents are adequate for employees working remotely
                                                                                                    • promoting a safe and inclusive workplace culture
                                                                                                      • encouraging reporting and acting on reports as soon as possible
                                                                                                        • investigating incidents and reviewing existing controls.

                                                                                                          More information

                                                                                                          Legal duties

                                                                                                          Employers have duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act), including that they must, so far as is reasonably practicable:

                                                                                                          • Provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees and independent contractors.
                                                                                                            • Provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees and independent contractors as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health.
                                                                                                              • Monitor the health of employees.
                                                                                                                • Monitor conditions at any workplace under the employer's management and control.
                                                                                                                  • Provide information concerning health and safety to employees, including (where appropriate) in languages other than English.
                                                                                                                    • Ensure that persons other than employees are not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the conduct of the undertaking of the employer.
                                                                                                                      • Consult with employees and HSRs, if any, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them.

                                                                                                                        Support organisations if an employee needs immediate help

                                                                                                                        Additional support organisations