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The high incidence of workers’ compensation claims for psychological injury in Australia remains an ongoing concern for workplace health and safety (WHS) professionals.

In recognition of Mental Health Week, the ABC’s Mental As program and National Safe Work Month, AlertForce this month devotes a number of its news articles to exploring WHS programs for workers with mental health issues.

Today’s article looks specifically at wellness programs.

Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield in the UK Kathryn Ecclestone notes educational settings have become a prime policy site for psychological well-being training (now transmogrifying as “character education”).

More generally, “behavioural economics, neuroscience and various strands of psychology now combine to generate government measures of citizens’ subjective well-being, myriad devices to capture, monitor and respond to mass sentiment are used by corporations such as British Airways, Facebook and Google, and there is a huge rise in behavioural and psychological disorders and treatments,” Prof Ecclestone notes.

“Behind it all lurks deep pessimism about the declining mental health of western workers.”
Dr Ecclestone’s comments were made in a critique of William Davies’ The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold us Well-Being on the UK Times Higher Education website.

Workplace psych injuries are particularly relevant for employers because they involve longer periods of time away from work and higher medical, legal and other payments than most injuries.

Responding to workplace psych injury is not the only cost for business, the July 2015 Corrs Workplace Relations Employment Workplace and Safety Law: Mid-Year Review notes.

“Changes in the labour force mean that four out of every five jobs in Australia are in the services sector and the delivery of services is usually in person. This means that happy workers are good for business,” the review says.

The Corrs report notes the model WHS Act taken up by most states and territories imposes an obligation on a person undertaking a business or undertaking (PCBU) to ensure that they take all steps reasonably practicable to ensure both the physical and psychological health of their workers.

WHS regulations generally require business to apply a risk management approach to psychological risk. “This means that businesses have a duty and responsibility under the WHS Act to proactively manage risks, which includes a comprehensive and systematic approach to identifying, assessing, controlling and monitoring risks to the psychological health of their workers and to ensure that they don’t expose others to relevant risks arising from work performed in their business,” Corrs report says.

Corrs says “significant” assistance is available from the WHS Regulators’ websites in relation to how to conduct a risk assessment in relation to psychosocial hazard. However it says business is struggling to convert those risk assessments into effective action.

“Many are turning to leaders in the field such as Canada which has produced the standard known as ‘Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace”,” the report says . “This is a detailed and voluntary standard that specifies requirements for a systematic approach to develop and enable psychologically safe and healthy workplaces, the integration of a psychological health and safety management system into the way the organisation manages its business and the promotion of psychological wellness as opposed to focusing only on preventing psychological injury arising from working conditions.”

The WHS Regulators now recognise workplace bullying as a WHS risk and have introduced guidance material and campaigns, and increased interventions in this area. However, WHS prosecutions in relation to these issues are not common yet. Corrs says “it remains to be seen” if the WHS Regulators and inspectors will be sufficiently resourced to respond effectively to workplace psychological risks. “Certainly, the WorkCover NSW 2010–2015 corporate plan states ‘Research indicates job stress and other work-related psychosocial hazards are emerging as leading contributors to the burden of workplace illness and injury’.

There is little doubt that workplace psychosocial risk is an emerging WHS issue requiring a systematic response from business, Corrs says.

Damages on rise
The rapid rise of psych injuries is not the only worrying trend for employers noted in the Corrs report. In its second annual review of workplace safety laws, Corrs says a Full Federal Court decision signals an important shift in the approach of Australian courts to the assessment of damages in sexual harassment cases. The Full Court awarded $130,000 in damages to Oracle’s former consulting manager for sexual harassment by a male sales representative. The company was held vicariously liable for the sales representative’s conduct. The Full Court found that the trial judge’s award of $18,000 damages did not reflect ‘prevailing community standards’.

A five-member FWC Full Bench, meantime, has upheld an appeal by DP World against a first instance decision that constrained its ability to conduct urine tests as part of a new drug and alcohol (D&A) policy. The case involved interpretation of DP World’s enterprise agreement provision that referred to the policy’s random D&A testing regime and swab/oral testing method. Under its new national policy, which replaced site-specific policies, DP World tried to introduce a follow-up urine test when an employee had a positive swab test. The Full Bench determined that the agreement, and the circumstances of DP World’s operations, did not preclude urine testing for a second or confirmatory test. The decision is one of a number of FWC decisions in the past year that have largely supported employer rights to administer D&A tests under applicable workplace policies, and to discipline or dismiss employees who breach such policies.

The Corrs report also looks at the “myth” of ‘harmonised’ workplace health and safety legislation. It says harmonisation is the most significant step to date to relieve the regulatory headaches businesses experience operating across states. However, it was not designed to deliver a national approach to the regulation of WHS and “has not done so”. “The adoption of the model laws in six of the eight WHS jurisdictions has given business little relief from the WHS regulatory bureaucracy because WHS laws remain different in each jurisdiction. Victoria and WA have not adopted the model WHS laws and within the so-called ‘harmonised jurisdiction’ the model laws have been varied to accommodate local pressures – this means that over time, each state and territory will become increasingly divergent.”

Require WHS training to better identify WHS risk factors? Go to

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