Despite new laws, growing workers’ compensation payouts and alarming statistics regarding the debilitating effects of psychological injury, most employers are either unaware of their obligation to help stressed employees or unprepared, a lawyer has warned.
Ahead of his address to occupational health and safety practitioners at April’s Safety In Action Conference, Chris Molnar, partner at Harmers Workplace Lawyers, said many employers found “the whole issue of psychological injury a little bit difficult”.
“Employers can understand what they need to do when there’s a physical hazard, like putting a guard on a dangerous piece of machinery, but when it comes to potential psychological injury, most employers remain unaware of their obligations. Even when they do become aware of potential injury, they generally fail to take prompt or appropriate action to properly manage the risk.”
With workplace injury rates at all-time lows, there’s a shift in focus away from the physical to the psychological. Among the topics to be canvassed by occupational health and safety professionals at the Safety In Action Conference will be post-traumatic mental health, dangerous mental states, and decoding behaviour.
Mounting evidence shows workplace stress has a significant impact on the health of Victorians. A 2003 VicHealth report on workplace stress estimated job strain could account for more than one-third of cardio-vascular disease in men and one in three cases of depression among women. It said job stress had also been linked to increased absenteeism, employee turnover and workers’ compensation rates.
Concern about workplace stress has been reflected in legislation, with the revised Victorian OHS Act referring specifically to psychological injury.
"Meeting employer obligations under the OHS Act doesn’t mean sending people off to a health check every week," Mr Molnar said, "but, depending on the industry and occupation, it certainly means being sensitive to your employee’s wellbeing."
“There is an obligation on the employer to do a risk assessment, identify hazards in relation to the job, assess the potential for that to occur and to assess the potential damage – ultimately, that might be a psychiatric condition if there’s too much stress," he said.
“Examples of hazards to psychological health are unreasonable workload expectations, unreasonable work hours, bullying and harassment by co-workers, lack of proper mentoring and supervision, lack of proper systems and processes, education and training.
“When people are depressed due to other causes, we need to be confident the working environment is not unduly adding to that and exacerbating the worker’s depression.”
Mr Molnar will address the risk factors of psychological injury in service industries at the Safety In Action Conference on April 30. Sponsored by WorkSafe Victoria and hosted by the Safety Institute of Australia (Victoria Division), the Safety In Action Conference will be held from April 29 to May 1 at the Melbourne Convention Centre, while the concurrently held Safety In Action trade show will be at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. Visit www.siaconference.com.au or phone (03) 9654 7773.