How a global pandemic shaped a new era for psychological health and safety at work
The New Era
As we enter 2022, we continue to navigate our way through the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic; one of the most significant events in modern history affecting individuals and organisations across the globe. With a 50 per cent increase in engagement with mental health support services for anxiety and double the engagement for depression, the pandemic has brought psychological health to the forefront of our collective consciousness (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021; BeyondBlue 2020). The shared experiences about how our work, home, and community interact to influence wellbeing has generated a new era of understanding for psychological health and psychosocial safety (see Psychosocial Risk and Hazard Management Definitions). For organisations striving to deliver goods and services in a landscape of ever shifting demands, adapting existing organisational policy and practice to protect physical and psychological health has become an ongoing commitment.
Even before the emergence of COVID-19, demands in our workplaces had shifted away from simple, routine, and physical based tasks towards more complex and cognitively demanding duties. With the communication and technological advances that encapsulate the new industrial stages, there has been an acceleration of work intensification towards producing greater quantities of increasingly complex outcomes (El Mouayni, et al., 2019). Awareness of how work-related psychosocial (psychological + social) factors can be hazardous to worker physical and mental health has been growing over the last decade. Work pressures have been found to predict a wide range of poor health outcomes including symptoms for anxiety, depression, musculoskeletal disorders and cardiovascular disease, costing billions to employers and the economy (Productivity Commission 2020a; Yaribeygi, 2017).
Then in 2020 the global pandemic generated a communal sense of urgency to prioritise health and safety inside and outside the workplace. Modifications to organisational policy, practice, and procedure to protect employees and customers became essential. Whether due to latest government mandates, or responsibilities to protect worker health and minimise the detrimental impact on productivity, greater attention to safety protocols were required. In most organisations this resulted in a need for collaboration amongst key personnel to identify emerging risks to physical and psychological health and develop corresponding strategies to prevent harm.
The Pandemic Response to Psychosocial Risk
In some organisations there were clear actions demonstrating priority for worker health and safety. For instance, some workers were at increased risk of being exposed to customer aggression from members of the public suffering from heightened anxiety while simultaneously coping with pressures to adapt to new policies and procedures. Employers responded by applying risk controls such as increasing the security presence, additional staff de-escalation training, procedures to stay safe when abuse occurs, ways to access supports, clearly displayed messaging to customers in stores, and publicity campaigns to promote customer cooperation. However, for many workers there were also expectations to manage unreasonable demands while adapting to ever changing policy and practice, leading to widespread exhaustion reported across numerous industries and organisations (Dobson et al.; Mayer 2021; Northwood, et al., 2021).
Another example was the need for organisations to manage the percentage of Australians who shifted to working remotely, which rose from 8% to 40% over the last two years (Productivity Commission, 2020b). Flexible working arrangements offered numerous benefits including reduced overheads for the employer and better work-life balance for employees. The respite from the daily commute, a greater sense of job control, and a break from some of the distractions found in open office environments had a positive impact on productivity for many employees.
However not all individuals or workplaces are the same. Some people thrive in socially interactive environments with regular face to face contact that generates more efficient forms of communication and service delivery. And incidental onsite interactions between team members can prompt problem solving and innovation. Also, some workers do not have a physical space in their home that is conducive to their productivity. And working remotely produces new risks such as online fatigue (Bailenson, 2021), virtual overload (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 2021), blurred work and home boundaries, and social isolation, in addition to other potential hazards that can exist in a home environment. By recognising the benefits, assessing the risks, and implementing appropriate controls the hybrid model involving a combination of onsite and remote work has now become common place in many organisations.
From a pandemic to the great resignation, or is it the great reshuffle?
It is argued a great resignation is occurring due to a decrease in access to supplies of new labour and rise in proportions of existing workers seeking alternative employment arrangements (Leong, Ross, & Tickle, 2021). Prior to the pandemic, trends relating to aging populations and decreasing birth rates were already impacting the existing workforce supply. With the pandemic came travel restrictions, border closures, and limitations to immigration further decreasing access to new sources of employees. The restrictions and decreasing workforce supply created a corresponding shift in demand, whereby many workers found there was an increase in the desire for their labour, placing them in a greater position of power and allowing them to seek better working conditions from either their existing or a new employer.
The term ‘great resignation’ may not convey the most accurate depiction of current trends as it is not just about people quitting their jobs. The last two years has witnessed a pattern where workers are opting out of their existing employment for a variety of reasons (PriceWaterhouseCooper, 2021). Some are choosing to upskill or reskill and move into industries that can offer more work life balance or better opportunities for career progression, while others are seeking greater job security. This shift in supply, changes in how we perform our work, renewed focus on mental health, and movement of workers across industries, could be more accurately termed as ‘the great reshuffle’ (Sabella, 2021) rather than ‘the great resignation’.
Is it possible for employers to attract and retain talent, while protecting worker health and maintain productivity outcomes in this modern era?
From a workplace psychology perspective, employee motivation is influenced by interactions between job demands, job rewards, job control, and support (Demerouti, Bakker, Nachreiner, & Schaufeli, 2001). While some individual workers are highly motivated by financial rewards, job security, recognition and respect, others are driven by an internal sense of purpose to contribute to meaningful goals within their team or in their community. For most people it is a combination of both, and priorities can change throughout a person’s career.
Work can be protective for mental health. Beyond the benefits of financial rewards there are aspects in relation to job demands, such as appropriate utilisation of skill and having enough time to complete work tasks, that foster a sense of accomplishment. This can prompt a release of endorphins which has a positive impact on mental health and motivation (Sauter, et al., 1999; Yaribeygi et al., 2017). When job demands are excessive, or resources are inadequate, that same sense of satisfaction can turn into feelings of incompetence, failure, and hopelessness. This reaction triggers a stress response releasing cortisol and stress hormones.
In general, people can cope with periodic exposure to stress when they have access to adequate and appropriate resources, and opportunities for recovery in between demanding tasks or shifts. However, if these stressful periods are acute, or occur frequently and for extended periods of time, the physiological reactions can have a detrimental impact on the central nervous system and the cardiovascular, digestive and muscular skeletal systems (Yaribey.gi, 2017). These stressful periods affect appetite, sleep, concentration, and emotional regulation resulting in a wide range of poor health outcomes that also impact motivation and productivity.
Under these types of stressful workplace conditions, employees will implement coping strategies such as emotional withdrawal, reduced professional efficacy, and will be more motivated to seek alternative employment. Over time outcomes include a reduction in quantity and quality of output, increase in sickness absence, and higher rates of turnover costing employers billions in lost productivity (Mental Health Commission Canada, 2013; Productivity Commission, 2020a). Conversely, if an organisation can demonstrate that they are active in creating a psychologically safe work environment though senior priority for mental health in balance with productivity outcomes, management action to prevent psychosocial hazards, and employee participation in creating safe systems of work, staff will be healthier, more engaged, and less likely to turnover.
More employers than ever are implementing systems designed with the intent to promote wellbeing (Black Dog Institute, 2021). Research shows that recognition by key personnel (senior management, WHS, and HR) of psychosocial hazards in the workplace along with consistent support from leaders to address risk factors, are essential for creating a healthy climate for psychosocial safety (Dollard & Bailey, 2021; link to Other Article). To achieve this healthy climate an employer will have systems imbedded throughout their organisation appropriate for their business size, industry, and occupations that will reduce risk of exposure to psychosocial hazards and reduce their potential for harm.
There are various approaches for managing psychosocial risk that can be matched to your business’s characteristics. Extensive guidelines are available and international standards were released last year (see ISO45003 & Self Audit tool). In general, guidelines follow best practice principles involving:
- identifying psychosocial factors specific to your organisation,
- assessing levels of risk to determine priorities,
- designing and implementing appropriate controls, and
- evaluating the effectiveness of the controls in reducing risk.
While it may not be reasonable for a small business to implement all processes detailed in the international standards, they still need to demonstrate that their systems adequately identify risk factors and reasonable controls are implemented to protect workers from harm.
For medium to large organisations, a good risk assessment tool is an efficient method to determine if existing controls are achieving desired outcomes across the organisation. There are many psychosocial risk assessment tools available to use that vary in quality and cost. The best tools will include lead indicators that evaluate the psychological health climates which drive interactions between psychosocial factors. These indicators include shared perceptions about senior management priority for psychological safety, leader action to protect mental health, worker participation in designing safe systems of work and confidence to raise concerns. Lead indicators are effective at evaluating risk by predicting the potential for exposure to psychosocial hazards and likelihood for harm.
The results from a psychosocial risk assessment should clearly convey strengths of existing systems to protect worker mental health and weaknesses in the climate for psychological safety. Results can then be utilised by key personnel to design targeted interventions at the organisational, team, or individual levels and develop evidence-based strategies that will optimise worker health and productivity outcomes (PRC16 | The Opus Centre).
What does the future hold for psychological health and safety at work?
Whether or not your organisation is currently experiencing any direct impact from the great resignation or the great reshuffle, there is no doubt that the pandemic has left a lasting impression on the workplace relations landscape. In the past workers might have been praised for showing up to work when feeling sick or felt pressured to ignore their symptoms and push through their illness, however, many employers and employees would now consider these to be inappropriate behaviours. Safety protocols in relation to social distancing, mask wearing, remote work, isolation and vaccinations will continue to be a dominant focus for policy and practice. And the advances in understanding how work-related psychosocial factors impact health and productivity will drive new standards for safety into the future.
Despite the wide acceptance of “health” to include psychological as well as physical health, employers are often uncertain how to best address these work-related psychosocial factors (Boland, 2018). In 2021 WHS Ministers across Australia supported recommendations for more prescribed steps to identify and manage psychosocial risk. Future regulations for work health and safety will require organisations demonstrate proactive systems designed to prevent exposure to psychosocial hazards as well as minimise harm if exposure does occur.
For instance, SafeWork NSW (2022) recently updated their enforceable undertakings guidelines adding that commitment to a “positive work health and safety culture within the workplace” will be taken into consideration with any future proceedings. In addition, WorkSafe Victoria (2022) have released draft Occupational Health and Safety Amendment (Psychological Health) Regulations for comment. The draft includes explicit requirements for employers to identify psychosocial hazards, provide a detailed written prevention plan, and demonstrate risk controls are effective.
Organisations will need updated policies that ensure references to ‘health’ are appropriate for psychological health and systems for ‘safety’ include psychosocial safety. Policies should promote procedures that can be agile to shift with the rapid pace of change that is entrenched within industry 4.0 to optimise worker health and productivity outcomes. With retention and recruitment becoming top priority, organisations need to demonstrate that they understand what motivates their employees and can align workplace productivity outcomes with their worker’s values for health, safety, sustainability, inclusivity, and purpose.
There are many benefits to implementing evidence-based systems for psychosocial risk and hazard management. Better worker health and wellbeing leads to improved organisational productivity, reductions in turnover, while also achieving your due diligence to provide a safe working environment (Productivity Commission, 2020a, Safe Work NSW, 2017). For more information on how to implement best practices psychosocial risk management in your workplace contact us at email@example.com
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