Good Practice Guidelines For Managing Psychosocial Risks At Work

It is a well-established principle that the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA) places obligations on employers to take reasonably practicable steps to provide a workplace without risk to an employee's mental health.  WorkSafe New Zealand is currently seeking feedback on its Mentally Healthy Work - Good Practice Guidelines for Managing Psychosocial Risks at Work (Good Practice Guidelines) which explain how employers can manage psychosocial risks in the workplace so that mental health and wellbeing is prioritised.

Key points of the draft Good Practice Guidelines
  • Explains the importance of managing psychosocial risks (being psychological and social factors that affect a person's health and wellbeing) at work
  • Introduces the factors influencing mentally healthy work and how they can impact your business
  • Explains how the Māori health and wellbeing model, Te Whare Tapa Whā, is a helpful tool for understanding health and wellbeing
  • Details the risk management approach to be taken to manage psychosocial risks to workers’ health and wellbeing
  • Offers examples of control measures to manage psychosocial risks
  • Provides examples of culturally inclusive practices for creating mentally healthy work
  • Offers "good practice" advice for responding when workers have been exposed to psychosocial hazards at work.
Te Whare Tapa Whā concept of employee wellbeing

Sir Mason Durie's concept of Te Whare Tapa Whā (house with four sides) is used to help explain the concept of worker wellbeing.  The whare (house) is a person's wellbeing, comprised of four walls: taha wairua (spiritual), taha hinegaro (mental and emotional), taha tinana (physical) and taha whānau (family and social), resting on whenua (land or foundation).  This model encourages employers to consider that their workers bring their personal life to work and getting to know their workers better can help understand how life outside of work may be affecting their "four walls" and therefore their wellbeing at work.

Broad range of psychosocial hazards at work

WorkSafe has identified a broad range of psychosocial hazards that could cause harm in the workplace.  The key hazard areas are stated to be work design, social factors and the work environment:

  • Work design includes remote working (and ensuing isolation) and a lack of clarity surrounding role description and organisational change as psychosocial hazards
  • Social factors include work/life balance, culture and (lack of) respect
  • The work environment includes both temperature, lighting and insufficient space for breaks and meals. In construction work, tense interactions with the public are also identified as hazards.

Early warning signs of psychosocial hazards that employees should be alert to include decreased performance, trouble focusing and less communication collaboration or enthusiasm.

Assessing and mitigating risks

WorkSafe recommends involving workers not only to assess wellbeing on an individual level but also as a method to check the overall effectiveness of the management practices in place.  WorkSafe details the primary (elimination), secondary (minimisation) and tertiary (reduction) levels of intervention for control measures to reduce the risk or likelihood of harm.  Emphasis is placed on an employer preventing risks from occurring through good workplace design and culture, effective leadership and worker engagement.  

Following Australia's lead

The draft Good Practice Guidelines broadly follow the New South Wales Model Code of Practise: Managing psychological hazards at work.  With the Model Code already in place, New South Wales is moving ahead with prosecutions for employer failings to manage psychosocial hazards.  In 2022 a specialist unit within the Victorian Office of Public Prosecution was prosecuted for not taking reasonable care to prevent injury after an employee developed post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder in the course of work.  The employer was found to have failed to proactively reduce the obvious risks to its workers given the nature of the work.  Similarly, in early 2023 Court Services Victoria pled guilty and was fined for failing to provide and maintain a safe workplace.  The lack of processes in the Coroner's Court to mitigate psychological health risks contributed to the death of one employee and stress leave for multiple workers.  It seems only a matter of time before there is a similar prosecution in relation to a failure to manage psychosocial risks in a New Zealand workplace.  

The consultation process on the draft Good Practice Guidelines is open until 15 December 2023 and details on how to make a submission can be found here.

This article was co-authored by Susan Rowe (partner) and Claire Broughton (summer clerk).