Under work health and safety law, employers have an obligation to, so far as is practicable, provide and maintain a working environment in which employees are not exposed to hazards. This obligation goes beyond just making sure employees are protected from physical hazards like slips and trips, extreme weather and machinery without safety guards. Employers are expected to take into account the psychosocial hazards that may be present at their workplace and to make sure that these hazards are addressed in a systematic way.

What are psychosocial hazards?

For many employees, a positive workplace is an important part of maintaining good mental health and a general sense of wellbeing. A recent UK study of the Association of Accounting Technicians found that eight out of ten people would prefer to work in a happy environment and get along with their clients than earn a high wage.

However, there are workplaces that can actually cause harm to the social and mental wellbeing of employees. This may be because a workplace has psychosocial hazards resulting from, for example:

  • bullying and harassment
  • employee fatigue and burnout
  • drug and alcohol misuse

What are the causes of psychosocial hazards?

The causes of psychosocial hazards vary, depending on the workplace. In general, they include factors like:

  • work overload
  • work-related stress
  • poor work design and communication
  • job insecurity
  • lack of support from colleagues/supervisors
  • role conflict/ambiguity

How can psychosocial hazards affect your workplace?

Psychosocial hazards can result in cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, anxiety, depression and burnout for employees – with the associated costs for employers. A recent Australian report found that depression alone costs Australian companies approximately AUD$8 billion a year due to absenteeism with roughly an estimated AUD$700 million of this due to job strain and bullying.

Both companies and directors have received substantial fines for failing to address psychosocial hazards in the workplace and failing to provide reasonable care for the health and safety of their employees. In the case of Inspector Maddaford v Coleman (NSW) Pty Ltd & Or a 16 year old labourer was subjected to an ‘initiation practice’ that amounted to a psychosocial hazard. The practice included:

  • being wrapped in plastic by co-workers
  • sawdust being pushed in the labourers mount and thrust down into his shirt and pants
  • glue being squirted into his mouth and over his body

The result was that the two directors of the employing company were found to be personally liable under work health and safety law, even though they were not directly involved in the incident. One director was convicted and fined $12,000 and the other director was convicted and fined $9,000. This was because the psychosocial hazard (bullying) was foreseeable. The directors should have been proactive in meeting their legal obligation to provide a safe working environment for their employees.

What can employers do to reduce psychosocial hazards in your workplace?

An investment in workplace health addresses employee absenteeism while making sure that employers meet their obligations under work health and safety law. A good place to start is by implementing a mental health program in your workplace that specifically targets the psychosocial hazards specific to your business.

Importantly, like any other workplace hazard, psychosocial hazards should be addressed directly in your work health and safety management system. This can be done by implementing policies and procedures that proactively deal with psychosocial hazards including:

  • bullying
  • driver fatigue
  • customer aggression
  • drugs and alcohol in the workplace

How can we help you to address psychosocial hazards in your workplace?

If you are being affected by a psychosocial hazard and require legal advice, or if you need help developing policies and procedures to address psychosocial hazards, feel free to contact our office to arrange a private consultation with our employment team.


About the author:

This article has been authored by Shzan Plandowski, law graduate at Lynn & Brown Lawyers.  Shzan has experience in corporate and property law.


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