Work-related Mental Health
Mental (psychological) health, just like physical health, is an important part of work health and safety (WHS).
Recognising and managing risks in the workplace that may lead to physical or psychological injury is an essential part of creating a safe, healthy and productive workplace.
Work-related psychological injury is expensive - it’s estimated that poor psychological health and safety costs Australian organisations $6 billion per annum in lost productivity.
Occasionally, one seemingly minor incident can have long term impacts on worker’s psychological and physical health. This can be due to a build-up of negative experiences or other unexplainable factors which are not immediately apparent. These reactions may include:
- physical signs – like headaches, insomnia, indigestion, high blood pressure, alopecia, loss of appetite
- emotional factors – such as irritability, lack of concentration, anxiety, depression, loss of confidence, low morale
- behavioural aspects – such as poor work performance, accidents, poor relationships at home and work, dependence on tobacco, drugs and alcohol.
Psychological hazards that can negatively impact on a worker's health and safety include (but are not limited to):
Psychological injuries typically require three times more time off work than other injuries.
Use this online form if you have a concern or complaint to make about a mental health workplace safety issue.
What work health and safety laws apply?
Employers and PCBUs have a legal responsibility to manage hazards and risks in the workplace. The how to manage work health and safety risks code of practice provides guidance on risk management for physical and psychological hazards as the WHS Act defines health as both physical and psychological. For specific guidance on risk management for psychological hazards refer to the SafeWork Australia national guide for work-related psychological health, a systematic guide to meeting your duties. Also see Safe Work Australia’s Preventing psychological injury under work health and safety laws fact sheet.
Identifying the hazards that may affect good mental health, assessing how severe the risks are, and taking steps to eliminate and control the risks are essential steps to building a healthy and safe workplace.
It is important to remember a person may have more than one duty and more than one person can have the same duty.
Person conducting businesses or undertaking (PCBU)
A PCBU has the primary duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, workers and other people are not exposed to psychological health and safety risks arising from the business or undertaking.
This duty requires you to ‘manage’ risks to psychological health and safety arising from the business or undertaking by eliminating exposure to psychosocial hazards so far as is reasonably practicable. If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate them, you must then minimise those risks so far as is reasonably practicable.
Officer of a PCBU
An officer of a PCBU has a duty to exercise due diligence to ensure the PCBU complies with their duties under the WHS laws. This includes taking reasonable steps to gain an understanding of the psychosocial hazards and risks associated with the operations of the business or undertaking, and to ensure the business or undertaking has and uses appropriate resources and processes to eliminate or minimise risks to psychological health. An officer is essentially a person involved in making decisions that affect the whole or a substantial part of the organisation.
Workers have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and to not adversely affect the health and safety of other persons. Workers must comply with reasonable instructions, as far as they are reasonably able, and co-operate with reasonable health and safety policies or procedures that have been notified to workers
Other persons at the workplace
Other persons at the workplace, like visitors, must take reasonable care for their own health and safety and must take reasonable care not to adversely affect other people’s health and safety. They must comply, so far as they are reasonably able, with reasonable instructions given by the PCBU to allow them to comply with WHS laws.
WHS law do not operate in isolation and other laws may also be relevant.
Other legislative frameworks
Criminal laws: where incidents of bullying involve an assault or other criminal behaviour, criminal laws will also apply. In such circumstances we recommend you contact ACT Policing and inform them of the incident.
Anti-Discrimination laws: each Australian jurisdiction regulates against the discrimination of certain groups including sex discrimination. Under anti-discrimination laws, organisations are also required to make reasonable adjustments by making changes to allow workers with mental disorders to perform the inherent requirements of their job.
Fair Work Act 2009: contains measures to address bullying at work. A worker who is subject to bullying at work can apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to prevent the worker from being bullied at work by an individual or group of individuals. Under the Fair Work Act 2009 an employer must not take any adverse action against an employee or prospective employee because of their disability (such as for accessing sick leave).
Privacy laws: there are a number of Australian laws regulating the handling and disclosure of personal information and health care records, including the Privacy Act 1998 (Cth).
Disclosure of a mental health condition
Disclosure by an employee during employment: Workers are not required to disclose information about a mental health condition to their manager or supervisor if the mental health condition does not affect how they do their job. However, organisational systems should be in place to ensure workers understand the importance of getting medical advice when their disability or long term health condition may affect their ability to carry out the inherent or essential requirements of the job, including working safely.
Workers should be encouraged to consult their treating medical practitioner if they believe the job requirements may exacerbate their condition and then discuss this medical advice with their manager. If a worker discloses a condition to a manager or supervisor, they are legally obliged to keep the information confidential, unless the worker gives written permission for them to share.
Generally, employers, service providers and others must make reasonable adjustments for people with a disability to enable them to have the same opportunities as others.
If reasonable adjustments are required to help an employee with disability can do his or her job, your costs may be covered by the Employment Assistance Fund.
Disclosure during recruitment processes – Having a mental health condition does not often significantly affect a person’s ability to perform the inherent requirements of a job. However, during the recruitment process you may ask an applicant to disclose a known disability or illness, including a mental health condition that might reasonably be expected to impact on the applicant’s ability to perform inherent requirements of the job and to identify if any reasonable adjustments may be needed.
Under the Fair Work Act 2009, the prohibition on adverse action by a prospective employer against a prospective employee on the basis of physical or mental disability does not apply to action taken because of the inherent requirements of a particular position. If a prospective employee does not disclose a known pre-existing condition when requested, it may affect their access to workers’ compensation if the condition worsens or recurs in that employment.
Given the sensitivities around requesting applicants to disclose their health conditions (and the risk you may be in breach of other laws if you seek this information without considering its relevance to the role and circumstances), you should get advice from a workplace relations expert before including this in your recruitment processes.
Other helpful resources
- SafeWork Australia - The most effective design process considers health and safety issues during the conceptual and planning phases. - Good Work Design
- SafeWork Australia - Leaders are people who influence the attitudes and behaviours of others. Sometimes they do this through their formal role and sometimes by their personal influence. Leadership and Culture
- The Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance - https://www.headsup.org.au/
- SafeWork Australia and Australian National University - survey findings between work characteristics, wellbeing, depression and workplace bullying of 32-35 year old workers in Canberra and Queanbeyan.
- Awareness into action: A holistic approach to cultivating mentally healthy workplaces in Australia (Allianz Australia)
- Mentally healthy workplaces toolkit (WorkCover Queensland)
- Simple guide to workplace health and wellbeing (WorkSafe Tasmania)
- Psychologically safe and healthy workplaces: Risk management approach toolkit (WorkSafe WA)
- People at Work - a risk assessment tool developed by QUT, ANU, WorkCover QLD, WorkCover NSW, WorkSafe Victoria, Comcare, Safe Work Australia, and beyondblue.
- The Office for Mental Health and Wellbeing
- Lifespan is a new, evidence-based, integrated approach to suicide prevention in the ACT.
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