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 and can lead to psychological injury. 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. Guidance on the following pages can help employers recognise psychosocial hazards that, if left unmanaged, may increase the risk of stress and psychological injury.
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.
Relationship of physical and psychosocial hazards
Work-related physical hazards and psychosocial hazards can be connected and one can affect the other. Employees who do not feel safe at work due to physical hazards can be at risk of developing work-related stress. Employees who are stressed have a higher risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and their concentration and decision-making abilities can be affected, increasing the risk of physical injury.
Definitions and terms
An explanation of some of the terms you will come across in guidance about work-related stress.
A hazard is a situation or thing that has the potential to harm a person.
Hazards at work might include, for example, hazardous manual tasks, noisy machinery, a moving forklift, chemicals, electricity and working at heights.
Psychosocial hazards include work-related factors such as repetitive work, high workloads and aggressive or abusive behaviours, including bullying and violence at the workplace.
Individual factors are any attributes or characteristics of the individual that might increase the likelihood of developing a disease or injury.
People respond to hazards in different ways. Individual differences that might make some people more susceptible to harm from exposure to the same hazard include:
- being a new or young employee
- having an existing disability, injury or illness
- having previously been exposed to a traumatic event
- people experiencing difficult personal circumstances
Despite individual factors, it is still an employer's responsibility to control risks across individuals and groups of employees, so far as reasonably practicable.
Risk is the possibility that harm – death, injury or illness – might occur when someone is exposed to a hazard.
Psychological injury is a disorder diagnosed by a medical practitioner and includes a range of recognised cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioural symptoms. These might be short term or occur over many months or years and can significantly affect how a person feels, thinks, behaves and interacts with others. Psychological injuries are sometimes also known as mental health conditions or disorders.
Psychosocial hazards are factors in the design or management of work that increase the risk of work-related stress, which can then lead to psychological or physical harm. Examples include poor supervisor support or high job demands.
Work-related factors are factors in the design or management of work that can positively or negatively affect an employee's mental health. Examples include supervision, workload and role clarity.
Work-related stress is the physical and psychological response of an employee who perceives that the demands of their work or workplace environment exceed their ability or resources to cope.
Work-related stress does not itself constitute physical or psychological harm or injury but can result in an injury if stress is prolonged or severe.
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The effects of work-related stress
Psychosocial hazards contributing to work-related stress
A risk management approach to work-related stress
Implementing a work-related stress risk management process
Early intervention for work-related stress – what managers need to know
Work-related stress – low job control
Work-related stress – high and low job demands
Work-related stress – poor support
Work-related stress – poor organisational change management
Work-related stress – poor organisational justice
Work-related stress – low recognition and reward
Work-related stress – low role clarity
Work-related stress – poor workplace relationships
Work-related stress – poor environmental conditions
Work-related stress – remote and isolated work
Work-related stress – violent or traumatic events