Workplace Psychosocial Health and Your Obligations as a PCBU

19 September 2023

Following the amendments made by Safe Work Australia to the model Work Health and Safety Act and the model Work Health and Safety Regulations in June 2022, the Commonwealth and most States and Territories have implemented specific regulatory duties requiring persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) to manage psychosocial risks. 

A PCBU has the primary duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health (including psychological health) and safety of each worker who is engaged, caused to be engaged, influenced or directed by the PCBU while the worker is at work in the business or undertaking. The model WHS Regulations now include specific duties for PCBUs to ensure that psychosocial hazards at work are effectively managed by first trying to eliminate psychosocial hazards, and only if that is not reasonably practicable, then by minimising the remaining risks so far as is reasonably practicable.

In determining what control measures to use, the PCBU must have regard to all relevant matters. This includes:

  • the duration, frequency and severity of exposure to hazards
  • how psychosocial hazards may interact or combine
  • the design of work and systems of work
  • the design, layout and environmental conditions of the workplace including providing safe means of entry and exit, and facilities for the welfare of workers
  • plant, substances and structures at the workplace
  • workplace interactions or behaviours, and
  • information, training, instruction and supervision provided to workers.  

This can be done using the risk management process. 

Safe Work Australia recommends following the same four step risk management process you use to manage physical hazards to manage psychosocial hazards. All these steps must be supported by consultation with your workers.

Workplace Psychosocial Health and Your Obligations as a PCBU -

Step One: Identify the Psychosocial Hazards

The first step in the risk management process is to identify the psychosocial hazards which may arise from the work context or work content. This involves identifying the aspects of work and situations that could potentially harm people and why these may be occurring. It should also find where hazards and risks are, why they are not effectively managed, and opportunities to improve the quality of the existing controls.

Step Two: Assess and Prioritise the Psychosocial Hazards and Risks

The psychosocial risk assessment process will assist the PCBU in determining:

  • the seriousness of the risk (considering both the consequences for affected workers and others and the likelihood of harm occurring)
  • which workers are most at risk and affected
  • if risks are organisational-wide or apply to specific groups of workers or work tasks
  • what controls are currently used (if any), how effective they are
  • what controls could reduce the risk(s) to the lowest practical level, and
  • the priority for action.

You should do a risk assessment when:

  • it is unclear if the psychosocial hazards may result in harm or how they may interact with each other to produce a new or more significant risk(s) of harm, or
  • changes are planned, or underway that may impact the effectiveness of controls.

Once a risk assessment has been completed, then consider the following:

  • the seriousness of the consequences for workers if exposed including: –the severity of possible harm and/or –the duration of exposure to harm.
  • the reasonably foreseeable likelihood that workers may experience harm doing the task or jobs, for example, has harm occurred previously or in similar workplaces?
  • next determine consequences and likelihood in combination.

The outcomes and decisions from considering these three factors can help you prioritise action.

Step Three: Control Psychosocial Hazards and Risks

Examples of how the PCBU can manage psychosocial hazards include ensuring the provision and maintenance of:

  • safe systems of work
  • a safe working environment
  • good work design
  • the safe use, handling, and storage of plant, structures and substances
  • adequate access to welfare facilities at work
  • reasonable adjustments for individual workers
  • necessary information, training, instruction or supervision of workers, and
  • the health of workers and the conditions at the workplace are monitored to ensure any risks remain adequately controlled.

Step Four: Proactively Implement, Maintain, Monitor and Review the Effectiveness of Controls

The information and processes you used to identify hazards and risks will also help you monitor and review the effectiveness of control measures.

Reviews can be used to check whether:

  • the approach to systematic work health and safety management is effective.
  • hazards and risks are being effectively controlled.
  • the organisation is meeting its WHS obligations, including for due diligence.
  • there are opportunities for improvement.

Reviews should occur:

  • before significant organisational or workplace changes occur, for example, changes to the organisational structure, work location, environment, equipment and resources, employment conditions or systems of work
  • where a new hazard or risk is identified
  • if a serious incident, injury or illness occurs arising from the psychosocial risk, or a psychological injury occurs
  • if a physical injury occurs where psychosocial risks were likely to be a contributing factor
  • if the hazard changes and you are now uncertain of the risk
  • if a control measure is not adequately minimising the risk
  • where consultation indicates a review is necessary
  • if requested by a HSR
  • at agreed review dates, such as annually, or
  • where audit results indicate, a review is necessary.

If you haven’t already done so, Australian businesses and employers need to familiarise themselves with the additional requirements added by changes to the Regulations in their jurisdiction in managing psychosocial hazards. Workplaces are likely to be initially challenged as they update training, systems and processes, all done in consultation with the workers. In the longer term, the changes will become embedded in health and safety systems. Hopefully, it will lead to better workplaces and, most importantly, a decline in mental health injuries arising from the workplace.

If you would like more information on how to manage psychosocial risks in your workplace, please contact Bianca via the link below.