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Occupational Health & Safety

How to create mentally healthy workplaces – an interview with Ian Firth, SafeWork NSW

19 Jan 2021, by Amy Sarcevic

Over the years there has been much talk about ‘mentally healthy workplaces’, spurring corporates to adopt a host of office perks like free fruit, seated massage, and lunchtime yoga.

Whilst these measures are valuable, Ian Firth of SafeWork NSW explains that WHS legislation requires a more systematic approach to psychosocial hazard reduction – with factors like workload, job clarity and management style all coming into play.

“There tends to be confusion when it comes to an employer’s psychosocial risk management obligations within WHS law,” said Ian ahead of the National Workers’ Compensation Summit.

“There’s a ton of information out there and directors often tell me they feel overwhelmed by the corporate wellness advice online. Likewise, when they read the legislation itself, they often tell us it is not clear how to apply it at a practical level.

“In turn this can lead to inertia, or misguided initiatives that don’t get to the heart of what it means to be mentally healthy at work,” he added.

More than a compliance checklist

The need to translate WHS legislation into practical corporate wellness initiatives extends far beyond compliance. Research by Pricewaterhouse Coopers has shown that mentally healthy workplaces (MHW) are more profitable, with every dollar spent on MWH measures resulting in an average ROI of 2.3.

Conversely, undiagnosed mental health conditions are said to cost Australian workplaces $10.9 billion per year in absenteeism ($4.7 billion), presenteeism ($146 million) and compensation claims ($146 million).

Ian says figures like this often do not capture the contribution of psychosocial hazards to chronic physical illness, like cardiovascular disease and respiratory conditions.

“Some hazards, like poor job control, can wear people down over time and create an ongoing stress reaction that is really bad for a person’s health.

“Meanwhile other hazards, like workplace bullying, can be associated with acute and long term health outcomes,” he said.

Before joining SafeWork NSW, Ian – who has a background in clinical psychology – spent his days helping people return to work following psychological injury. He quickly grew disheartened by the amount of avoidable injuries he was seeing and shifted his career away from occupational rehabilitation, towards psychosocial hazard prevention.

This led him to get involved with the People at Work tool: an Australian risk assessment tool that assists organisations with managing psychosocial hazards.

“Many corporates are familiar with how to manage the emerging (secondary) and recovery (tertiary) phases of psychosocial injury, but less so with the prevention (primary) phase,” he said.

“The People at Work tool is a process that helps employers with this phase: identifying hazards and assessing the risk which can contribute to psychological injury and illness among staff.”

How does it work?

One of the most reliable predictors of whether someone will experience stress beyond their coping is their own perception of whether they can manage a situation, Ian explains.

As such, the People at Work tool measures employees’ experience in relation to various psychosocial workplace hazards, as identified by SafeWork Australia in their guidance material:

1. Job demand – the level of physical, mental and emotional effort required to do a job

2. Job control– the level of control a worker has over aspects of their work including how or when a job is done

3. Support – the level of support from supervisors and co-workers, information, equipment and resources available to allow the work to be done Preventing Psychological Injury Under Work Health and Safety Laws May 2014 Page 3

4. Workplace relationships – the nature of relationships between workers, managers, supervisors, coworkers and clients

5. Role clarity – the overall scope or responsibilities of the job, clarity about the objectives, key accountabilities and management expectations of workers

6. Organisational change management – how change in the organisation, structure or job is communicated and the extent of worker involvement during these changes

7. Recognition and reward – the nature of feedback on task performance, performance reviews, opportunities for skills development, formal and informal rewards

8. Organisational justice – perceptions of unfairness, consistency, bias and respect for workers.

Established in 2007, the People at Work Project was a research collaboration among University of Queensland, The Australian National University, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, WorkCover NSW, WorkSafe Victoria, Comcare, Safe Work Australia, and beyondblue. It was soft launched in November 2020 and is preparing for a hard launch in March this year. It is now available online.

Ian says the tool was designed for self-administration, so that employer’s wouldn’t need to use a consultant to use it.

“It’s all online and fairly easy to make sense of,” he said.

Giving a practical demonstration on the People at Work tool and talking more broadly about psychosocial workplace hazards, Ian Firth will present at the National Workers Compensation Summit – to be held on 30-31 March.

This year’s event will be held at the Sofitel Darling Harbour Sydney.

Learn more and register.




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