Work-related stress – poor support

This guidance may help employers manage the risks of work-related stress associated with supervisors and colleagues providing poor support for employees.

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.

Poor support

Poor support at work occurs in tasks or jobs where employees have inadequate:

  • emotional and practical support from supervisors and co-employees
    • information or training to support their work performance
      • ​​​​​​​tools, equipment and resources to do the job

        Job design, work environment and working conditions

        Risk control measures to address work-related stress should focus on job design, work environment and working conditions. Risk control measures that provide support for employees could include, for example, practical assistance and providing information and emotional support and constructive feedback, if reasonably practicable in the circumstances. The following points explain how employers can provide support to employees.

        Organisational structures

        There are many approaches an organisation can take to ensure its employees feel supported, including:

        • ensuring clear management structures across the organisation and reporting lines within work teams. This will help employees know who they are accountable to, either overall or for particular tasks, and where they can go for help with work problems
          • providing new employees with a thorough induction to the organisation and work unit and, where possible, structured socialisation with a buddy system and tailored training plan
            • providing and promoting employee assistance services that respond to individual issues or concerns, both work and non-work related
              • promoting a culture that values diversity in the workplace
                • providing and promoting flexible work practices that best suit individual and business needs, for example, working from home or flexible working hours

                  Practical support

                  There are various types of practical support an employer can provide, for example:

                  • assisting with work demands, for example, helping employees complete a task they find challenging
                    • setting clear work goals and providing information on processes and procedures
                      • providing development opportunities
                        • conducting performance reviews which include fair, goal-focused and constructive feedback and asking employees what supports are required to achieve their goals
                          • providing assistance when employees undertake challenging tasks, such as new duties or roles and mentally, emotionally and physically demanding tasks
                            • ensuring the willingness of colleagues to help out when things are tough
                              • talking over a problem with an employee
                                • ensuring roles are backfilled or work is redistributed when employees are out of the office or away on leave

                                  Communication

                                  Employees can experience stress if they feel unsupported in their workplace. Regular communication can reduce stress responses. Ways to ensure regular communication can include:

                                  • the willingness of supervisors and colleagues to discuss work problems
                                    • the ability to raise any work problems and discuss how they are addressed
                                      • regular team meetings to discuss pressures and challenges within the work unit, what is going well, and where support may be required
                                        • helping employees come up with and work through risk control measures for task-related issues
                                          • providing sufficient information so employees can perform tasks competently, particularly when taking on new work

                                            Training and development

                                            It is important employees feel confident and capable of completing their assigned tasks. Ways to give employees confidence include making sure:

                                            • employees receive suitable training to be competent in their roles. Training can be both task-specific and more general, for example, code of conduct training in ethics and behavioural expectations, mental health and cultural awareness
                                              • supervisors receive training regarding supportive policies and effective communication with employees
                                                • competencies are up to date and relevant refresher training is provided
                                                  • training is available to part-time, casual and shift employees and those in remote locations
                                                    • all employees, contractors and labour hire employees are aware of the policies concerning acceptable behaviour in the workplace
                                                      • employees receive managerial training when appropriate to encourage a wider understanding of their tasks. Training could include managing –
                                                        • workload and resources
                                                        • health and safety
                                                        • performance management
                                                        • conflict
                                                        • interpersonal skills
                                                        • emotional intelligence, including empathy and expressing and managing own emotions
                                                        • effective communication

                                                      Constructive feedback

                                                      The way managers and supervisors provide feedback, and how often, can have an impact on employees' stress response.

                                                      Employers should ensure managers and supervisors:

                                                      • provide appropriate and immediate feedback on task performance, frequently, but not so regularly that it undermines an employee's independence
                                                        • recognise employees/team members either formally or informally when they have done tasks well and be specific about what was done well
                                                          • give employees practical advice and guidance on areas that need improving
                                                            • use annual performance reviews to provide constructive advice for future performance and aligned with support for opportunities for skill development. It is important that annual performance tools are not seen as a disciplinary measure, rather a supportive guiding discussion to help individuals reach their goals that are aligned with organisational goals

                                                              Emotional support

                                                              Emotional support from supervisors or colleagues can have a protective effect and might reduce an employee's stress response, particularly in situations of high demand and low control. Supervisors or managers are often the first point of call for employees. An employer should provide the necessary information, training and instruction to ensure employees' concerns are appropriately handled.

                                                              Ways in which an employer can ensure employees receive appropriate emotional support include:

                                                              • supporting open communication
                                                                • encouraging employees to share their concerns about work-related stress factors at an early stage by having workplace safety reporting mechanisms normalised and available. Employees should feel comfortable discussing any safety issues that might arise
                                                                  • considering there might be non-work-related stress factors present in employees' lives and allowing flexible work arrangements where practicable, if appropriate and if the employee is open to such conversations
                                                                    • promoting and developing a team culture where employees help each other and provide support when required
                                                                      • allowing time to talk through problems with employees and promoting an 'open door' policy
                                                                        • ensuring sensitive management of employees experiencing problems
                                                                          • being aware and taking appropriate action if a team member is behaving out of character
                                                                            • improving team unity by holding formal and informal team-building activities
                                                                              • establishing a colleague support system and a mentoring/buddy program for new starters

                                                                                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.