Work-related stress – low role clarity

This guidance can help employers with strategies and risk control measures to control work-related stress from low role clarity.


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.

Understanding low role clarity and role conflict

Low role clarity is characterised by jobs where there is:

  • uncertainty about or frequent changes to tasks and work standards
  • important task information that is not available to the employee
  • conflicting job roles, responsibilities or expectations, such as an employee is told one job is a priority but another manager disagrees or priorities are changed
  • poor explanation about an employee's performance objectives, accountabilities and others' expectations of their performance

Role conflict is characterised by situations where:

  • an employee has to perform a task that conflicts with their values or expectations
  • an employee is torn between two or more job demands that cannot be realistically achieved at the same time
  • there are unclear reporting lines or competing demands

Improving role clarity and reducing role conflict

Employers must decide what risk control measures they will use to control low role clarity and role conflict that can lead to work-related stress.

Risk control measures should focus on job design, including clear communication of performance objectives and key role accountabilities. Risk control measures should ensure employees understand their role within the work group and the organisation, relative to their colleagues and other work groups, and what to do when expectations on different employees conflict or overlap.

Role clarity

A wide range of work situations can create role confusion, such as beginning a new job, starting in a new organisation, a transfer, a new supervisor or manager or following a change in the structure of a work unit. Lack of role clarity can lead to tension and conflict between employees.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires employers to ensure all employees receive necessary information, instruction, supervision and training to perform their work safely and without risks to health. Fulfilling their OHS Act requirements can help employers improve role clarity.

Other examples of actions an employer can take to improve role clarity include:

  • providing all employees with a corporate induction and thorough onboarding
    • where possible, provide a structured socialisation process designed to address an individual training needs analysis and a supportive buddy system to assist with on-the-job learning
  • ensuring employees are aware of their role within their immediate work team or unit, program area and the broader organisation
  • job task analysis and subsequent position description clearly outlining the role and associated expectations
  • developing personal work plans that clearly define task objectives and expected performance
  • encouraging feedback on changes that affect employees' job tasks
  • implementing a performance feedback system where employees receive regular feedback on jobs well done and any areas for improvement
  • encouraging employees to talk to their supervisor or manager early if they are unclear about the scope or responsibilities of their role
  • ensuring employees have an up-to-date role or position description which includes the role purpose, reporting relationships and the employee's key duties
  • ensuring that management structures and reporting lines within work teams are clear. This may help employees know who they are accountable to and where they can go for help with work problems
  • providing an organisational chart that gives a clear view of the organisational structure and communication channels
  • checking with employees to ensure they understand any additional or different responsibilities or duties required of them following an organisational change or restructure
  • ensuring employees are comfortable with new functions
  • using the performance review process to allow employees to have renewed input into the way they complete their work

Role conflict

Role conflict can occur when employees receive two different and incompatible tasks at the same time or their role overlaps with another employee or work group. Employers can manage role conflict by:

  • ensuring the different requirements of various tasks are compatible
  • having clear reporting lines so employees know who they are directly accountable to
  • ensuring employees are only accountable to one immediate supervisor
  • ensuring clear guidelines and support are available if client and supervisor expectations do not align
  • ensuring systems are in place for employees to raise concerns about conflicts they have in their role and responsibilities. For example, have regular team meetings so employees can discuss potential role conflict
  • assigning roles to employees that do not conflict with their personal values

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.

More about your legal obligations

Related pages

This information is from 'Preventing and managing work-related stress: A guide for employers'. The complete guide is available in two formats.

Website version PDF guide