A risk management approach to work-related stress

This guidance explains the risk management process and how employers can apply it to help control the risk of work-related stress in the workplace.

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.

Consultation

Employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, consult with employees and any health and safety representatives (HSRs) on health and safety matters, including, for example, when identifying or assessing hazards or risks and when making decisions about measures to control risks to health or safety, including the risk of work-related stress.

Consultation with employees is an essential element in the creation of a workplace that is safe and free from unreasonable risks to employees' psychological health.

The risk management process

The risk management process involves a series of steps to identify hazards and control risks. Employers should apply the risk management process to control, as far as reasonably practicable, exposure to factors which might contribute to work-related stress.

The risk management process involves the following steps:

  1. Identifying hazards

    Identifying the existence of psychosocial hazards that could cause harm, for example, high job demands.

Applying the risk management process

The following steps show how to apply the risk management approach to eliminate or reduce risks of work-related stress, as far as reasonably practicable.

Step 1: Identify the hazards

The first step in the risk management process is to identify psychosocial hazards that might contribute to work-related stress and psychological injury.

Determine the source of work-related stress by evaluating:

  • productivity levels
  • leadership capability
  • rates of absenteeism
  • workers compensation claims
  • separation rates/turnover
  • exit interviews
  • employee engagement/morale
  • customer feedback
  • peak/seasonal demands
  • incident reports
  • data trends

Audit tools and surveys might also help identify relevant psychosocial hazards.

There might be other hazards that are unique to your industry or your organisation that you should consider. Employers can obtain more information about psychosocial hazards that contribute to stress by reviewing employee complaints and seeking feedback from employees, including one-on-one discussions and focus groups.

Focus groups, primarily used in larger organisations, are small groups from across the organisation. The purpose of a focus group is to provide a forum to determine the risk of exposure to psychosocial hazards. This is done by asking the group to consider potential causes of work-related stress.

Employee surveys can be an important tool to identify psychosocial hazards in the workplace. Surveys can help assess the degree to which the hazards affect employees and pinpoint where the hazards originate. When surveying employees, consider the size of the survey group, the method of selecting participants and how staff will receive the survey results. It is important to guarantee anonymity throughout the entire process.

Step 2: Assess the risks

Because many factors can affect work-related stress, a risk assessment might help prioritise risk control actions.

A risk assessment involves examining psychosocial hazards associated with work-related stress to assess whether, and to what extent, they create a risk to the health and safety of employees.

A risk assessment can take into account:

  • the circumstances where work-related stress occurs
  • the frequency and duration of exposure to psychosocial hazards, for example, whether risk to health and safety builds up over time or occurs in a single incident
  • the likelihood that work-related stress might occur if the identified factor is not controlled

Step 3: Control risks

After determining which psychosocial hazards are associated with work-related stress and pose a risk to employee health and safety, employers should select and apply appropriate risk control measures to control the risk, so far as reasonably practicable.

Examples of risk control measures to manage the risk of employee work-related stress include:

  • job design to address high or low job demands
  • developing supervisor/managerial skills through coaching, mentoring and training to improve the support of employees
  • providing external assistance. For example, an employee assistance program (EAP) to increase job support
  • communicating with employees about the availability of assistance to address job demands and levels of control
  • promoting effective early intervention to improve support to employees and quality of relationships

Use the hierarchy of control for psychosocial hazards

The hierarchy of control is a step-by-step approach to eliminating or reducing risks. It ranks risk controls from the highest level of protection and reliability through to the lowest and least reliable protection. Eliminating the hazard and risk is the highest level of control in the hierarchy, followed by reducing the risk through substitution, isolation and engineering controls, then reducing the risk through administrative controls. Reducing the risk through the use of protective personal equipment (PPE) is the lowest level of control.

Section 20 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires duty holders to eliminate risks to health and safety, so far as reasonably practicable. Employers should use the hierarchy of control when selecting and applying measures to control the risk of work-related stress. The WorkSafe website has guidance explaining the hierarchy of control and how to use it to eliminate or reduce risks at work.

Eliminate the risk

The most effective control measure involves eliminating the hazard and its associated risk. The best way to eliminate a hazard is to avoid introducing the hazard in the first place. Systematically considering work-related factors that present psychosocial hazards in job design forms part of this process.

Other controls for eliminating psychosocial hazards and risks can include:

  • eliminating hazards through job design and safe systems of work
  • eliminating after-hours or night work
  • eliminating driving at night
  • eliminating solo shifts

It might be more practical to anticipate hazards and design the work and workplace to avoid the hazards before they can become risks.

It may not be possible to eliminate a hazard if doing so means you are unable to make the end product or deliver the service. If elimination is not possible, the hazard or risk must be reduced as far as reasonably practicable.

Reduce the risk through substitution, isolation, structural or systems controls

If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate the hazards and associated risks, minimise the risks so far as reasonably practicable by substitution, isolation or engineering controls. However, it is important to realise that applying controls at this level for work-related stress might leave employers and their employees vulnerable to ongoing effects of those work-related factors that remain unaddressed at the source.

Examples of substitution, isolation and engineering controls include the following:

Substitution

Substitute the hazard with something safer. For example:

  • provide different tasks, type of work or work location
  • move safety-critical roles to daytime away from night shift
  • temporary or permanent change in reporting lines
Isolation

Isolate the hazard. For example:

  • workplace design features such as physical barriers, video-conferencing, increasing the level of visibility and secure areas for employees only
  • re-assign employees to other teams or work to separate them from other people or types of work that are sources of work-related stress
Engineering controls

An engineering control is a control measure that is physical in nature, including a mechanical device or process. Examples of engineering controls include:

  • providing alternative tools or equipment such as a sit/stand desk
  • workplace design to improve environmental conditions, for example, lighting, vibration, temperature, noise
  • workplace design including safety barriers or screens

Reduce the risk using administrative controls

Administrative controls are work methods or procedures designed to minimise exposure to a hazard. In most cases, administrative controls use systems of work to control the risk, for example:

  • updating job descriptions and reporting lines for role clarity
  • a recognition and reward program that is fair, transparent and timely
  • application of policies, procedures and written work plans that are available to all employees
  • active promotion of health and safety policies, procedures and practices
  • timely and comprehensive consultation around any organisational change that may affect employees
  •  promoting and encouraging healthy personal and workplace behaviours
  • providing tools for employees. For example, resilience training, mental health first aid
  • providing access to employee assistance programs such as counselling
  • providing additional support during difficult events, such as times of organisational change or downsizing
  • not tolerating unreasonable or harmful behaviours from any employee in the organisation
  • implementing a critical incident stress management (CISM) procedure at the workplace where there may be risk of a stressful critical incident
  • education and training at induction and at regular intervals that address unreasonable or harmful workplace behaviours
  • limiting the amount of time employees are required to undertake certain tasks

Reduce the risk using personal protective equipment (PPE)

PPE refers to anything employees use or wear to minimise risks to their health and safety. PPE for psychosocial hazards might be similar to those for physical hazards, where the exposure to a physical hazard causes concern or distress. For example:

  • gloves and gowns for jobs involving exposure to contagious diseases or hazardous chemicals or substances
  • hats and sunscreen for jobs performed outdoors
  • protective eyewear
  • personal alarm devices

Choose the most effective controls

Consider various control options and choose the controls that most effectively eliminate the hazard or, if elimination is not reasonably practicable, reduce the risk so far as is reasonably practicable in the circumstances. Reducing the risk might involve a single control measure or combination of different controls that work together to provide the highest level of reasonably practicable protection.

Safety leadership and culture

The concepts of safety leadership and culture are central to the hierarchy of control and are key to ensuring the ongoing health and safety of employees.

Committed leadership and culture provides an environment where employees feel safe to raise concerns and confident those concerns will be addressed in a fair and timely manner.

Safety leadership

Active and visible commitment to the prevention and management of psychosocial hazards from the top down is critical.

In particular, leaders should take responsibility for:

  • setting and enforcing health and safety objectives and accountabilities
  • ensuring effective health and safety systems of work are in place and used to identify and control risk
  • allocating resources to the prevention and management of work-related stress
  • role modelling compliance with policies and other desired behaviours
Safety culture

Common features of workplaces that prioritise safety include:

  • leaders, managers and supervisors who know employers have health and safety duties under the OHS Act and are vocal and proactive in promoting employee safety
  • leaders, managers and supervisors who commit to seeking out and implementing new and improved ways of doing things
  • providing rewards and recognition for employees who prioritise safety
  • establishing consequences for employees who do not prioritise safety
  • providing genuine opportunities for employees to raise issues and have input into decision-making
  • clear roles and responsibilities for employees
  • encouragement for teams to work well together, and with other groups across the organisation, to solve problems and get work done
  • ensuring employees have, or are provided with, the skills, knowledge, support and resources they need to do their work safely

Step 4: Review and revision of risk control measures

The last step of the risk management process is to review and, if necessary, revise risk control measures to ensure they are effective and working as planned. When reviewing the effectiveness of risk control measures, it is important to make sure the controls are reducing the risk of work-related stress or whether the control measures need modification. It is also important to ensure that any risk controls have not inadvertently caused or increased other risks.

Consultation and project evaluations, including staff feedback or staff surveys, can help establish whether controls are working.

Risk management for work-related stress is not a one-off exercise, it needs to be ongoing. The dynamics and complexity of workplaces can mean changes such as a new supervisor, new employees or new processes or procedures can have significant, unexpected or unplanned negative effects on employees' stress levels. Employers should control any new or potential factors associated with work-related stress.

Providing information, instruction, training and supervision

Employers must provide the necessary information, instruction, training and supervision employees need to do their work safely and without risks to health. This might include:

  • providing information about how employees can perform their roles safely. For example, safe systems of work
  • training employees and ensuring they are competent to perform tasks safely
  • supervising employees to ensure they apply safe systems of work and follow established work procedures

Employers should provide information to employees during their initial induction and at regular refresher training.

Ways to provide information and instruction might include presentations, procedure manuals and demonstrations of work processes. Employers can help control work-related stress if they provide employees with the necessary training, support and role clarity to do their job.

Employers should also provide information, instruction and training:

  • so employees have the skills and knowledge to understand the stress factors and risks associated with work-related stress
  • to all employees about appropriate workplace behaviours, how to raise health and safety issues and the procedure for dealing with the issue raised
  • to supervisors about recognising and proactively addressing health and safety issues, concerns or complaints

Work-related stress and your legal duties

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires employers to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, so far as is reasonably practicable. This responsibility includes providing and maintaining safe systems of work and an obligation to consult with employees and HSRs on matters that directly affect or are likely to affect their health or safety, including hazards and risks associated with work-related stress.

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.