Preventing work-related stress

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Risk management of work-related stress involves a systematic and planned approach that covers the associated risks to employee safety.  A risk assessment involves identifying the sources of risk, risk factors and the consequences if a worker is exposed to a hazard. 

Hazard Identification 

Hazard identification for psychological injuries follows a similar process to hazard identification for physical injuries or harm to health.  

Different methods can be used complimentary to each other to determine the presence of each work-related risk factor.  Such methods include:

  • Analysing workplace data: workplace data may be examined or analysed to determine trends and the presence of psychological risks in the workplace. Examples of workplace data includes, but is not limited to, number of grievances related to work-related stress, absenteeism and turnover data, and number of worker’s compensation claims for stress. 
  • Direct observations: often a walk around the workplace which involves informal conversations with employees and directly observing how employees are working and interacting with each other can identify the presence of psychological risk factors within the work environment.  ‘Walk arounds’ or direct observation should be conducted as regularly as possible; once a week if possible. 
  • Employee surveys: employee surveys are designed to take the ‘pulse’ of an organisation or work area at that point in time. Employee surveys are a common method for measuring psychological risk factors in the workplace by assessing employees’ perception of the workplace and their work experiences.  Employee surveys are typically a cost effective means to assess the entire workforce in a confidential and anonymous manner compared to other ways to obtain the information such as employee focus groups and interviews. Employee surveys use specific questions to identify the presence of psychological risk factors in the organisation overall and in work location/ groups. Employee surveys can include specific questions that measure the degree of psychological distress and physical symptoms.   

Risk assessment 

The Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 requires employers, main contractor, self-employed person or person with control over the workplace or access to it, to conduct risk assessments which consider how to reduce or eliminate the risk of injury or harm to health to employees, once a hazard has been identified in the workplace. 

Risk management of work-related stress involves a systematic and planned approach that covers the associated risks to employee safety.  A risk assessment involves identifying the sources of risk, risk factors and the consequences if a worker is exposed to a hazard. A risk assessment for work-related stress should include:

  • identifying psychological risk factors at work which could cause high and long-lasting levels of stress;
  • identifying people who might be affected by these psychological risk factors;
  • deciding whether preventative action in place is sufficient;
  • taking action to prevent work-related stress continuing and growing to an unacceptable level; and
  • reviewing the success of the control measures. 

The Psychologically Healthy and Safe Workplaces Risk Management Toolkit,  may assist your organisation to conduct its own risk assessment for work-related stress.  

Psychological risk factors for work-related stress

Psychological risk factors for work-related stress can be divided into three categories:

  1. Organisational
  2. Environmental
  3. Individual
Organisational risk factors

Although there are many psychological risk factors that can lead to a psychological and physical injury, there are eight psychological risk factors that have been widely researched and are known to adversely impact on employee well-being, psychological health and physical health. 

These eight psychological risk factors are:

  • Autonomy/control: the amount of authority the employee has over the way they do their job. 
  • Job demands: the amount of workload the employee has to complete, this includes timelines for completing work.
  • Support: the level of support the employee perceives from management and colleagues. 
  • Role conflict/ambiguity: the extent that the employee’s tasks and duties are clearly defined (i.e. understaffing can lead to employees doing tasks for more than one position).
  • Relationships: the extent of good working relationships in the workplace. This can include the presence of bullying and harassment issues in the workplace.
  • Change: involves planned and unplanned change in the work environment. Changes can occur at three levels: personal (i.e. changes to position and responsibilities), management (i.e. new supervisors or processes and procedures), and organisational (i.e. takeover, restructure or redundancies).
  • Rewards and recognition: involves rewarding employee efforts and recognising individual and team contributions and achievements within the organisation.
  • Organisational justice: refers to the perceptions of fairness about work procedures and how they are enacted. It involves procedural fairness and relational fairness. Procedural fairness refers to how procedures are implemented within the organisation. Relational fairness refers to the degree of dignity and respect afforded to a worker during the process.  
Environmental risk factors

Physical and chemical risk factors (as well as biological agents) can influence employees’ comfort and performance within the work environment and contribute to work-related stress. Environmental sources of work-related stress include: 

  • Noise
  • Temperature and humidity
  • Lighting
  • Vibration
  • Air Quality
  • Unguarded plant and machinery

More detailed information on each of these topics can be accessed by clicking on the source above.

Individual risk factors

People respond to work-related stress differently and this can, in part, be related (or contributed) to a person’s previous experiences, coping styles, personality style, available support and physiological factors which are external to the work environment. 

Differences in people’s responses to stress do not reduce employers’ legal duty and responsibility to minimise exposure to work-related stress. 

Other information on risk factors of work - related stress

Employees may also experience psychological injuries from aggressive or violent incidents that occur in the workplace. Psychological injuries from aggression can occur from either cumulative events or as a result of a traumatic event. The WorkSafe Western Australia Commission has produced a Code of Practice on Violence, Aggression and Bullying at Work which provides practical guidance for workplaces where people may be exposed to deliberate and intended physical assault, verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment and bullying. This code explains the responsibilities of employers and employees and suggests strategies for reducing the risk, responding to incidents and recovery. For more information on aggression in the workplace refer to the safety topic 'Aggression in the Workplace' on WorkSafe’s web site.  

Bullying in the workplace is one risk factor of work-related stress but is not covered in great detail in this section. For more information on bullying in the workplace refer to the safety topic 'Bullying' on WorkSafe’s web site. The WorkSafe Western Australia Commission has produced a Code of Practice on Violence, Aggression and Bullying at Work which provides practical guidance for workplaces where people may be exposed to deliberate and intended physical assault, verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment and bullying. This code explains the responsibilities of employers and employees and suggests strategies for reducing the risk, responding to incidents and recovery.

There are equal opportunity laws which are designed to protect persons in the workplace from harassment by supervisors or colleagues. Harassment may be intentional or result from a lack of awareness of various cultural, religious or other factors affecting an individual or group. Action against harassers can be taken where bullying activity is based on sex or ethnicity, and when harassment continues or intensifies after a complaint is lodged. For more information on this contact the Equal Opportunity Commission Western Australia

Controls and review

Preventing and controlling work-related stress requires a systematic, planned and structured approach. The design and appropriate solutions identified will vary according to the size and complexity of the organisation, available resources and especially the unique types of risk factors faced by the workplace.

Minimising work-related stress does not have to be costly. The application of good management practices that include appropriate organisation of work, a healthy corporate attitude, successfully managed change and an appropriate management style will all contribute towards reducing unwanted stress levels in the workplace.

Early intervention is very important if psychological risk factors are identified in the workplace. The risk assessment should determine the likelihood of work-related stress resulting in a psychological and /or physical injury, which will prompt actions to deal with those risk factors. For example, a supervisor needs to consider whether an employee has too many competing deadlines before asking that person to do an additional task. The employee needs to clearly understand the pressure they may already be under when deciding whether to refuse the extra work or not.

There are three types of interventions for controlling psychological risk factors which relate to the timing and level of the intervention: primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary interventions are aimed at the organisational and employee level. Secondary and tertiary interventions are focused at the employee level.  A summary of each of the interventions and examples of risk controls are provided in the table below. 

Intervention Timing Target level Examples of risk controls
Primary Before hazards or injuries/ incidents are present. Organisational employee
  • Job redesign
  • Leadership development training
Secondary After the hazard or incident, but before an injury occurs. Employee
  • Employee assistance program
  • Workload adjustments
Tertiary After it has been medically established that an injury has occurred.  Employee
  • Psychiatric/ psychological treatment
  • Medication 
  • Return to work programs

You may need to engage specialists or external consultants to assist you in the design and implementation of some of the risk controls. Professionals with particular expertise in this area include, but not limited to, Organisational Psychologists, organisational development consultants and human resources consultants.

Ideally, risk controls should be aimed at the organisational level. Interventions aimed at the organisational level are generally preventative controls and designed to either eliminate or reduce the risk factors. Examples include job redesign or the reallocation of work to distribute work more evenly across employees. While addressing psychological risk factors through employee level strategies is a risk control measure (eg counselling), it should be used in conjunction with an organisational level approach, as it does not address the reduction of the risk factors in the workplace. 

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