Office work and mental health

This guidance provides resources which may help employers eliminate or reduce and control risks to office employees' mental health.

Mentally healthy workplaces

Work is a big part of our daily lives and can help to prevent mental ill-health by giving us a feeling of purpose and a sense of contribution.

A mentally healthy workplace has measures in place to prevent harm by identifying risks to mental health, managing harm from an early stage and supporting recovery. At the same time, positive work-related factors are encouraged and promoted.

In a mentally healthy workplace:

  • mental health is everyone's responsibility
  • mental health is considered in every way you do business
  • everyone contributes to a culture where people feel safe and supported to talk about mental health
  • mental health support is tailored for individuals and teams
  • everyone can see that supporting mental health is a priority

There are a number of work-related factors within the control of employers that can impact on mental health and safety.

Work-related factors, also known as psychosocial hazards, are anything in the management or design of work that increases the risk of work-related stress, which can lead to physical injury, mental injury or even both at the same time.

Employees are likely to be exposed to a combination of work-related factors. Some of these may always be present, while others occur occasionally.

Section 5 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act), defines 'health' as including psychological health. WorkSafe has a range of guidance to help employers understand their legal duties, the benefits of a mentally healthy workplace, causes of workplace mental injury and how to create a mentally healthy office workplace.

Work-related stress

Stress is not an injury or an illness, however excessive and long-lasting stress can have a negative effect on employees' health, safety and wellbeing. Work-related stress is recognised globally as a major occupational health and safety (OHS) hazard and can be challenging for employers to prevent and manage.

Employees are likely to be exposed to a combination of psychosocial hazards that increase the risk of work-related stress and can lead to psychological or physical harm. 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.

WorkSafe has guidance to help employers manage and control work-related stress for office employees.

Workplace bullying

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

Workplace bullying can have an impact on an individual’s health and affect their ability to do their job. It can also contribute to loss of productivity, staff turnover, absenteeism, low morale and financial costs.

WorkSafe has workplace bullying guidance that can help employers implement measures to eliminate or reduce workplace bullying in office workplaces. The guidance also provides practical information for employers on what to do when a bullying issue is raised.

Family violence

Workplaces can play an important role in preventing and responding to family violence by providing a safe and supportive working environment for all employees. The safety and support of their workplace may particularly help employees experiencing family violence.

WorkSafe has guidance that can help employers understand how family violence affects the workplace, explains employers' duties and also helps employers respond to family violence.

Work-related fatigue

Fatigue is an acute and/or ongoing state of exhaustion that leads to physical, mental or emotional exhaustion and prevents people from functioning safely and within normal boundaries. Fatigue affects a person's health, increases the chance of workplace injuries occurring and reduces performance and productivity within the workplace.

Fatigue can be caused by working long hours or by working during some or all of the natural time for sleep. Fatigue can also result from an imbalance between the demands of someone's job, such as the physical, mental or emotional exertion required to perform a task, and the personal and work resources provided to support a person to manage these demands. For example, not enough mental and physical recovery time between shifts or insufficient tools or manager support may cause workers to become fatigued.

Adequate sleep, recuperation time and support are essential to prevent fatigue or, when fatigue does occur, to restore balance and promote recovery.

WorkSafe has guidance that can help employers and persons with duties under OHS laws comply with those laws in relation to fatigue in the workplace.

Work-related gendered violence including sexual harassment

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

This includes violence targeted directly at someone specifically because, for example:

  • they are a woman
  • they identify as LGBTIQA+
  • they do not follow socially prescribed gender roles and stereotypes

Work-related gendered violence can also be experienced indirectly. A person may experience gendered violence not targeted specifically at them, such as overhearing a conversation that affects them, or witness violence directed at someone else. Sexual harassment is a common form of gendered violence.

Types of work-related gendered violence can range in severity from comments and gestures, through to sexual assault and rape. It can include:

  • stalking, intimidation or threats
  • verbal abuse
  • ostracism or exclusion
  • sexually explicit gestures
  • offensive language and imagery
  • put downs, innuendo and insinuations
  • being undermined in your role or position
  • sexual harassment
  • sexual assault or rape

Employers, employees and others have specific duties relating to work-related gendered violence, including work-related sexual harassment, under the OHS Act and the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.

WorkSafe has guidance that can help employers prevent and respond to work-related gendered violence, including work-related sexual harassment.

Work-related violence

Work-related violence involves incidents in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work. This definition covers a broad range of actions and behaviours that can create a risk to the health and safety of employees. It includes behaviour sometimes described as acting out, challenging behaviour and behaviours of concern.

A range of sources can expose office employees to work-related violence, including co-workers, clients, customers and members of the public.

Examples of work-related violence include:

  • biting, spitting, scratching, hitting, kicking
  • pushing, shoving, tripping, grabbing
  • throwing objects
  • verbal threats or abuse
  • threatening someone with an object or weapon
  • armed robbery
  • sexual harassment and assault
  • online harassment, threats or abuse
  • assault with a weapon

Experiencing or being exposed to work-related violence can cause both physical harm and psychological harm from fear and distress. Work-related violence is a work-related risk that employers must eliminate, so far as reasonably practicable. If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate the risk, employers must reduce the risk so far as reasonably practicable.

WorkSafe has guidance that can help employers understand their duties in relation to work-related violence. The guidance provides advice about how to identify hazards and risks related to work-related violence, how to choose appropriate control measures and how to respond to incidents.

Your legal duties

The OHS Act requires employers to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, including psychological health, so far as reasonably practicable. This responsibility includes providing and maintaining safe systems of work and an obligation to consult with employees and health and safety representatives (HSRs) on matters that directly affect or are likely to affect their health or safety.

Employees also have duties under the OHS Act to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, the health and safety of people in the workplace and to co-operate with their employer.

Find out more about office work and your legal obligations on the WorkSafe website page, The Risk Management Approach to Health and Safety. A link to the page appears in Related information.