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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Torn and frayed

By the time someone reports harm their “psychosocial rope” has already frayed. REBECCA MICHALAK argues for a focus on risk exposure.

The glossy statement “people are our greatest asset” is ubiquitous. However, when it comes to actually protecting intellectual capital “assets” by preventing exposure to psychosocial hazards, health & safety, HR and PCBUs are responsible for nothing short of a gaping chasm between rhetoric and reality.

Fact: shiny anti-bullying, wellbeing and safety policies and polished value statements mean little when unaccompanied by necessary supporting cultural features, structural mechanisms, proactive monitoring, and enforcement.

Primary prevention strategies for psychosocial hazards remain essentially non-existent. These hazard exposures are known to lead to mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance use and abuse, suicide, and self-harm.


Vehicles and other equipment with potential to cause physical injury are inspected ad nauseum, with possible risks to physical safety and health frequently discussed, and mitigation strategies developed.

But when was the last time you had a quiet chat with someone and asked questions like:

  • • 
    Are there any potential sources of conflict in your team that we should have a chat about?
  • • 
    What are interpersonal dynamics with your colleagues and supervisor like?
  • • 
    Are your colleagues and supervisor treating you with respect?
  • • 
    Is there anything regarding work design or work environment that could be changed to help you perform to your best?

When did you last run or take part in a cultural and work design survey, interview, focus group, or other forum that sought information on possible psychosocial hazards?

If you are the exception to the rule who has run or participated in such a process in the last 12 months, congratulations! But what was done with the data? Did H&S, HR and the PCBU sit down, critically examine the findings and collaboratively revise the existing psychosocial hazard risk management plan? Is that revised plan now implemented, being actively monitored for effectiveness, and making a positive difference to worker psychological health and safety?

Does your PCBU even have a psychosocial hazard risk management plan? Didn’t think so.


Failure to engage in effective psychosocial risk management, and more specifically, failure to prevent psychosocial hazard exposure in the first place, is a problem because worker reports are uncommon. Research tells us workers rarely report psychosocial hazards in any way. As in 90% do not report bullying, harassment, overwork – not to HR, and certainly not to H&S.

By the time a worker makes one of those extremely rare reports, the psychosocial rope has been fraying for weeks or months. No one inspected it, no one replaced it, no one reported it. To extend the metaphor, the rope just snapped during a lift, the crane has overturned and the operator has been thrown out, extent of injuries unknown. HR, H&S and the PCBU are eyes cast up to the sky, praying to some superior being that all other workers telepathically detect the rope has snapped, and manage to scamper out of the way before a two-ton bucket of concrete falls on their heads.

From a risk management perspective, these rare reports of bullying, harassment and overwork also mean the exposure to the hazard has already occurred; the best-case intervention scenario now being “rescue” management, or harm minimization.

Unfortunately, harm being minimized assumes the H&S, HR and PCBU response to that super-rare report is appropriate. Frankly, evidence points to the chances of that happening being up there with you, me and Richard Branson sitting down on Mars enjoying a latte together. Not impossible but highly unlikely.

In reality, we are looking at clean-upthe-mess strategies, conveniently and typically deferred to other parties. (Good old ACC!)


Add in a health and safety regulator that sees fit to pass the buck – a legislated investigation and prosecution buck – on to alternative criminal and/or industrial relations avenues (none of which particularly want to take up this hot potato), and the PCBU’s escape from consequences is facilitated.

The worker’s mind is broken, but those responsible, possibly recklessly negligent, emerge unscathed.

This situation is an entirely unacceptable state of affairs. Treating psychological health and safety as in some way less important or less significant to physical health and safety has got to stop.

The dysfunctional silos, argy-bargy, finger-pointing and peeing in the jurisdictional sandpit contest between HR and H&S has got to stop.

The currently unfettered damage to worker psychological health and safety, the mental stress caused by psychosocial hazard exposures as drivers of depressive, anxiety and substance abuse disorder development, and the undeniable workplace contribution to the A$1.46 trillion annual global burden of anxiety, depression, suicide and self-harm has got to stop.

PCBU pigheadedness has got to stop.

The regulatory buck passing and navel gazing has got to stop.


It’s time for H&S, HR and PCBUs to start taking psychological health and safety seriously. Time to start collaborating and combining your valuable expertise to do things new, better and different. Time to start engaging in primary prevention of psychosocial hazards. Time to bring psychological health and safety out of the dark and into the light.

WorkSafe New Zealand – it’s time to tone up your designated muscles, and flex them. Hard.

In short, it’s time for all parties to start doing your respective jobs. Properly.

You can either stick with the status quo and remain a critical part of the problem, or become an essential part of the solution. The choice is yours – when it comes to psychological health and safety, either step up, or step out of the way and allow those willing and capable to take your place.

Dr Rebecca Michalak is principal consultant with PsychSafe (Australia). She is speaking at the HealthyWork conference in Auckland in November.

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