Identifying Psychological Injury Risks

Councils have Work, Health and Safety (WHS) protocols and procedures for consulting on, identifying and minimising risks as well as training in risk management and safe work practices. In minimising the risk of psychological injuries, the same protocols and procedures apply. What is needed is an emphasis on identifying the sources of potential psychological harm and applying the necessary assessment, protective and risk minimisation measures. 
Identifying psychological injury risks is the first step in developing a plan to assess, prevent and minimise the impact of psychological injuries.
Research suggests that there are many potential sources of harm. Investigating these potential sources may require several different approaches as they are not as easily observable as potential sources of physical harm. 
ComCare has developed a comprehensive guide to preventing psychological injuries in the workplace. The publication, called Working Well: An Organisational Approach to Preventing Psychological Injury (PDF. 457KB) identifies potential sources of psychological harm in what are called Work Context and Work Content areas. The summary table is reproduced below:
Organisational culture and function
Poor communication, low levels of support for problem-solving and personal development, lack of definition of organisational objectives.
Role in organisation Role ambiguity and role conflict, responsibility for people.
Career development
Career stagnation and uncertainty, under-promotion or over-promotion, poor pay, job insecurity, low social value to work.
Decision latitude/control Low participation in decision making, lack of control over work (control, particularly in the form of participation, is also a context and wider organisational issue).
Interpersonal relationships at work Social or physical isolation, poor relationships with superiors, interpersonal conflict (including harassment and bullying), lack of social support.
Customer-related The need to hide negative emotions during interactions with clients/customers, unrealistic customer expectations, and/or verbally aggressive clients/customers. Risk factors for violence include exchange of money with customers, few employees on site, and evening or night work.
Home-work interface Conflicting demands of work and home, low support at home, dual career problems.
Work environment and work equipment Problems regarding the reliability, availability, suitability and maintenance or repair of equipment and facilities.
Task design Lack of variety or short work cycles, fragmented or meaningless work, under-use of skills, high uncertainty.
Workload/work pace Work overload or underload, lack of control over pacing, high levels of time pressure.
Work schedule Shift working, inflexible work schedules, unpredictable hours, long or unsocial hours.
This matrix of risk factors can act as a guide to help direct a comprehensive risk identification exercise. Such an exercise, which may need to be implemented over a period, will require various investigative methods such as audits, surveys, focus groups or interviews. 
Other sources may also help inform consideration of these or other risks or priority risk areas. These  include:
  • Organisation climate/culture surveys
  • Data from workers’ compensation claims
  • Analysis of types of psychological injuries resulting from incidents
  • Feedback from WHS committees
  • Patterns in the use of the EAP program
  • Uptake of mental health support mechanisms
  • Feedback from exit interviews
  • Prior evaluations of health and wellbeing programs
  • Analysis of sick leave and absenteeism
  • Changes in turnover rates in particular areas of the organisation.
It is important to consider issues of privacy and confidentiality when dealing with some of this information and ensure that individuals are not identified or identifiable when analysing for trends in the data.
As well as risk minimisation strategies related to the primary risk identified at the source, for example a section of council that operates on shift work, it is important to also consider risks and strategies which don’t necessarily relate to a specific work source. It is this broader approach which brings a focus on developing a positive, fair and respectful workplace and motivates organisations to have policies and training in areas such as:
  • Workplace bullying and harassment
  • Discrimination
  • Cultural awareness and sensitivity
  • Equal opportunity
  • Early intervention
  • Return to work
  • Flexible working and leave arrangements
  • Recruitment
  • People and performance management.
Some councils include some of these in their health and wellbeing strategy. It does not matter whether such policies and training are part of a WHS action plan or health and wellbeing action plan or even some other workforce development strategy. What is important is that the council considers these broader issues around developing a positive, fair and respectful culture and adopts the actions appropriate for the organisation.
More information about preventing and managing psychological injuries can be found in the ComCare guide Working Well: An Organisational Approach to Preventing Psychological Injury (PDF. 457KB).
Potential risks to psychological injury need to be managed in accordance with council’s WHS protocols and procedures. The next step in the planning process is to assess the risks and develop strategies to eliminate or reduce them as far as reasonably practicable.

Minimising the impact of risks to psychological health

In the ComCare guide mentioned above there is an extensive list of suggested solutions to the psychological injury risks identified in the table above. 
Further information about psychological injuries in the workplace and possible remedies can also be found on the Disability Safe website. Council should apply its WHS protocols and procedures to assessing the risks and incorporating minimisation strategies and actions into its WHS plan.



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