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Duty to Protect Staff From Psychological Harm: An Explainer for Aged Care Providers

4/06/24
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Most aged care providers have some understanding of their legal duty to keep staff safe from physical harm in the workplace (e.g. by managing physical hazards such as wet floors and faulty equipment). But providers also have a duty to keep staff safe from psychological harm. In this article, we explain what aged care providers must do to manage “psychosocial hazards” in the workplace.

 

What Are Psychosocial Hazards?

According to Safe Work Australia, “A psychosocial hazard is anything that could cause psychological harm (e.g. harm someone’s mental health).” Psychosocial hazards may arise from the design or management of work, the working environment, workplace interaction and behaviours. Examples include:

  • job demands
  • low job control
  • poor support
  • lack of role clarity
  • poor organisational change management
  • inadequate reward and recognition
  • poor organisational justice
  • traumatic events or material
  • remote or isolated work
  • poor physical environment
  • violence and aggression
  • bullying
  • harassment, including sexual and gender-based harassment
  • conflict or poor workplace relationships and interactions.

Psychosocial hazards can cause both physical and psychological injuries. According to Safe Work Australia, the severity of psychological injuries varies, but in comparison to physical injuries, on average, psychological injuries require staff to take more time off work and are more costly to employers.

 

Legal Obligations

Under Work Health and Safety (WHS)/Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) laws, employers (including aged care providers) have a legal duty to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, so far as reasonably practicable.

As part of this duty, providers must identify psychosocial hazards that pose risks to workers’ health and safety, and they must implement control measures to eliminate those risks or, if that is not possible, to minimise those risks as much as possible.

 

What Should Providers Do to Identify and Manage Psychosocial Risks in The Workplace?

 

1. Identify hazards – find out what could cause psychosocial harm:

  • Consult with staff - this is not only a good discovery tool but is mandatory under WHS/OHS law. Prior to consultation, provide your staff with information to help them understand and recognise psychosocial hazards. Effective consultation should allow for differences in how staff may describe hazards (for example, they may say they feel ‘burnt out’ or ‘emotionally exhausted’ about their work). Seek to identify the underlying causes. Look for trends.
  • Use surveys – these can be anonymous to protect staff against stigma or for those who find direct consultation confronting. Ensure that surveys reach employees who may be remote or in different locations. Give staff time to consider how they feel about the effects of their work or work environment.
  • Observe work and behaviours – changes in an employee’s behaviour, such as diminished performance or withdrawal from work, may indicate early negative health impacts from psychosocial hazards.
  • Review available information – for example, staff complaints and investigation, records of injuries or workers’ compensation, exit interviews, Health and Safety Committee meeting records, etc.
  • Encourage reporting and have a reporting mechanism – it is important to ensure that reporting mechanisms are clearly communicated to employees.

 

2. Assess the risks

Once you have identified psychosocial hazards in your workplace, the next step is to assess the risks they create by carrying out a risk assessment. This will help you determine how severe the risks are and what is reasonably practical in managing the risks.

Consider the duration, frequency and severity of the risk. Psychosocial risks increase when exposure to hazards is more severe (e.g. exposure to a traumatic incident), more frequent (e.g. regularly performing high-pressure tasks without adequate support) or longer in duration (e.g. high job demands over weeks or months).

 

3. Control the risks

Once you have identified the hazards and have assessed the risks they create, you should eliminate or control the risks as much as possible by identifying control measures.

In your consultation phase, you may have identified control measures you hadn’t already thought of. For example, if your staff are experiencing an increase in inappropriate behaviour towards them from care recipients, you may have heard that this tends to be after a certain activity, or narrowed to a particular cohort, and you can then tailor your control measures to include specific actions for those circumstances.

Controls that are reliable and offer the highest level of protection are the most effective. For example, increasing staff support by ensuring adequate staff-to-care recipient ratios, particularly during high-risk times or activities. This can help manage behaviours more effectively and provide better support to care recipients. An additional control might be to develop or refine behaviour support plans for care recipients who are known to exhibit challenging behaviours. These plans should include specific strategies tailored to the individual’s needs and triggers. This collaborative approach could be a good combination of controls to ensure the well-being of staff, leading to a more positive and productive workplace that ultimately enhances the quality of care provided to care recipients.

 

4. Test the control measures

Allow enough time for your staff to adjust to any changes before assessing the effectiveness of the control measures. During this change period, frequently check in with your staff to see how they think the measures are working and consider what training, instruction, or supervision your staff needs to ensure the controls are implemented effectively.

 

5. Review control measures regularly

As well as having a schedule for regular reviews, you should also review control measures:

  • when the control measures are not eliminating or minimising the risks so far as is reasonably practicable
  • before a change at the workplace that is likely to give rise to a new or different health and safety risk that the control measures may not effectively control
  • if a new hazard or risk is identified
  • if the results of consultation indicate a review is necessary
  • if a Health and Safety Representative (HSR) requests a review because they reasonably believe one of the above has occurred and it has not been adequately reviewed already.

You can use the same methods as in the initial hazard identification step to check control measures. You must also consult your staff and their HSRs.

The Psychosocial Hazards Code also identifies some good questions to ask at the review stage:

  • Are control measures working effectively, without creating new risks?
  • Have staff reported feeling stressed or are they showing signs of harm?
  • Have all psychosocial hazards been identified?
  • Have risks changed or are they different to what you previously assessed?
  • Are staff actively involved in the risk management process?
  • Are staff openly raising health and safety concerns and reporting problems promptly?
  • Has instruction and training been provided to all relevant staff?
  • Are there any upcoming changes that are likely to result in a worker being exposed to psychosocial hazards?
  • Are new control measures available that might better control the risks?
  • Have risks been eliminated or minimised as far as is reasonably practicable?

 

More Information

Safe Work Australia has introduced a Model Code of Practice: Managing psychosocial hazards at work. It provides practical guidance on how to identify psychosocial hazards and information regarding how to assess and control the risks.

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About the Author

Karen Zeev

Karen is a lawyer and Team Leader at Ideagen. Karen has held senior legal, policy and investigator roles, most recently at the NSW Children’s Guardian, working closely with the Education sector, and at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse leading hearings and as a key contributor to the “Redress and Civil Litigation” and “Criminal Justice” reports.

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