When psychosocial risk management becomes a HR and OHS turf war

One of the most significant barriers to psychosocial risk management is the competing interests of human resources and OHS around worker consultation, according to an expert in the area. For HR, the employee engagement or culture survey is the function’s primary way of understanding employee commitment and productivity drivers, and HR can be reluctant to add in new surveys to assess psychosocial risk, said Jason van Schie, managing director of psychological health and safety consultancy Flourish Dx.

“Many HR professionals cannot distinguish between an engagement survey and a psychosocial risk assessment, and therefore prevent their OHS counterparts from consulting via survey due to fear of dreaded survey fatigue (which should more accurately be referred to as ‘survey inaction cynicism’ or ‘learned helplessness’),” he said.

van Schie, who spoke ahead of the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference 2024, which will be held at the Melbourne Convention Centre from 21-23 May, observed that the concept of “work already done” is particularly relevant in psychosocial risk management.

While considering workplace mental health through a health and safety lens is perhaps new, he said many of the required practices for psychosocial safety are likely to exist within most organisations in some form or another. 

“Rather than starting from scratch, organisations should first seek to identify the work already done and what modifications may be required to align to health and safety requirements,” he said.

“A good place to start is psychosocial hazard identification. Rather than conduct a new lengthy organisation-wide survey to identify psychosocial hazards, first, determine if there has been previous employee consultation on the experience of work (e.g. an engagement survey) that can provide this same information.”

If there are gaps in this survey data on hazards, he said these can be bridged through existing consultation forums with HSRs and wellbeing/safety committees.

“Psychological health and safety is primarily interested in work systems that have the potential to cause harm,” he said.

“Human resources have not been sitting on their hands for the past decade. There are many systems that they own that can be considered controls for hazards.”

These include recruitment, reward and recognition, learning and development, performance management and change management, so van Schie said to first identify these systems, map to hazards and then consider ways they can be monitored for effectiveness.

“Of course, there are some new work items that, in most instances, have not been completed before, such as a quantitative psychosocial risk assessment. So new systems and tools will need to be identified and used for this work,” he said.

van Schie also noted that psychosocial safety is not a new thing and pointed out that the UK Health and Safety Executive published the stress management standard 20 years ago. 

The standard detailed six common psychosocial hazards and how organisations could take a risk-based approach to prevent harm to workers. 

However, he said psychosocial risk management is not a common practice and that most Australian organisations are only in the early stages of commencing a formal strategy.

Historically, when it comes to workplace mental health, van Schie also noted that the focus has been on fixing the worker rather than fixing the work. 

“In practice this looks like employee assistance, peer support programs, RUOK? Days, lunch and learns, fruit bowls and yoga. This has largely been driven by well-meaning HR and wellbeing professionals,” he said.

“However, the OHS profession identified long ago that to reliably prevent physical injuries, that upstream approaches should be favoured by eliminating or engineering out hazards, rather than relying on fallible humans to simply ‘take care’.”

van Schie also affirmed that building maturity in psychosocial safety couldn’t be more important for the OHS profession. 

“Workers’ compensation claims for mental injury in Australia accounted for more than 400,000 weeks compensated for (almost 40 per cent of all compensated time off for any injury or illness), and is up 304 per cent over the past seven years,” he said.

“It should therefore come as no surprise that WHS regulators are focusing heavily on education and enforcement activities to ensure PCBUs are fulfilling their obligations under recently published psychosocial risk regulations.”

Similarly, van Schie said employee mental health is a common discussion at the board level where directors feel they have a moral obligation to their workers. 

However, he observed that many of these discussions are largely focused on responding to mental ill-health rather than the prevention of harm.

“So, the first gap is in the boardroom, where officers first need to understand what is within the control of the organisation to prevent mental injuries, rather than just provide reactive services,” he said.

“Thanks to the psychosocial risk regulations, there is now a clear link to officer duties, so this education is happening quicker than it ever has before.”

Organisations face a range of other psychosocial risk management challenges, according to van Schie, who said these include low levels of psychosocial literacy and competence from executives down to frontline workers and concept confusion (“psychological safety versus psychological health and safety is a common example of this”).

Other challenges include a lack of resourcing, beyond the salary cost of adding the responsibility to someone’s existing role, the proliferation of lower-order controls such as early intervention and administrative controls (education/policy) rather than elimination and work re-design, and a history of not evaluating workplace mental health ‘controls’ for their fit or effectiveness.

There are important implications for WHS professionals in the process, according to van Schie, who said that psychosocial risk management is now something they will need to understand and provide advice on – at least to some degree. 

“However, if you have been working in the OHS profession for more than five years, you probably have not been formally educated on psychosocial risk management, and do not have experience conducting a thorough psychosocial risk management process,” he said.

Up until recently, he said it was tough to bridge this knowledge and competence gap, however, there are many great free resources to build a good understanding.

These include guidance papers from Safe Work Australia and SafeWork NSW, and van Schie said FlourishDx also provides free webinars and podcasts with leading subject matter experts.

van Schie will speak at the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference 2024, to be held at the Melbourne Convention Centre from 21-23 May. The conference will offer three days of workshops, presentations, keynote speeches, networking events and a conference dinner. Delegates will have the opportunity to learn from their peers, share knowledge and grow their professional networks. For more information, email [email protected], call (03) 8336 1995 or visit the event website.