While larger organisations are generally aware of the effects of stress and psychological injury in the workplace, it can be confusing for organisations among the myriad of information and resources to put an appropriate prevention program in place, according to an expert in the field.
“In my discussions with organisations, there is a general consensus that organisational leaders as well as OHS professionals have found it difficult to know where to start, with a lack of awareness psychosocial risk factors, of intervention programs, the costs and resources required to develop programs that can prevent psychological injury in the workplace,” said Anita Patturajan, OHS Lecturer, Industry Fellow, RMIT.
While organisations which have psychological injuries in the workplace can be more sophisticated in their approach to managing the injury and rehabilitation processes, she said they might not be aware of their obligations with regards to prevention.
Patturajan, who recently spoke at the 2018 South Australia Safety Symposium: Psychosocial Risk and Safety Culture, said other organisations are still reactive and spend considerable time and cost dealing with dysfunction, bulling and harassment claims and interpersonal conflict management, without realising that there are ways to improve organisational culture and psychological safety in the workplace.
“Some organisations succumb to the popularity of the mindfulness myth and other interventions based on the individual rather than at an organisational level,” she added.
“These programs have little or no research evidence basis and generally have very limited results.”
Patturajan also observed that organisations are also under the misconception that there is a huge cost to deliver prevention programs.
“Therefore, the focus on mental health and psychological health can be challenging and confronting at the same time,” she said.
“It also requires leaders and stakeholders to come together with a common consensus on the organisational culture they want to create and then focus on developing appropriate programs to prevent psychological injuries at an organisational level.”
Preventing psychological injuries is quite complex, according to Patturajan, who said organisations can be challenged by simplifying this into a simple number of interventions that may not work.
“In my discussions with people leaders the biggest gaps and challenges are lack of awareness of the risk causal factors of psychological injuries, lack of focus on elimination of causal factors and focus on rehabilitation processes, lack of risk management approach, lack of data and the perception of cost and resource requirements to develop intervention programs,” she said.
“It is perceived often by senior management that elimination of psychological injuries as an OHS problem; I tend to challenge this as an organisational problem that needs an organisational change management program,” she said.
Research evidence on what can work is somewhat limited as well, and while Patturajan said there is a lot of theory and resources freely available, the challenge is to consider each organisation in isolation and then develop an intervention program that is specific to its own operations and risk.
Another issue is that there is no one risk factor and some of the risk factors are a combination of each other.
“For example, if you look at the management of change, job design and interpersonal conflict including bullying and harassment, these can all be related to each other and in combination of pre-existing mental ill-health issues in the workplace, it can be an insurmountable problem for leaders to tackle,” she said.
Patturajan has conducted research into psychological injury as an organisational issue and developing interventions at an organisational level.
This has found that organisational leaders are critical in ensuring a psychological safe workplace where work, health and safety are part of the organisation’s culture, and she said that leaders can develop a culture of prevention by:
- Focusing on embedding the occupational health and safety risk management principles within all levels of the organisation’s business processes, design of work, OHS policies and procedures, people development and management programs.
- Engaging with stakeholders, consult and communicate with all employees to ensure that the message of psychological safety is consistent across the organisation.
- Facilitating awareness training for managers on an organisational level on psychosocial hazards and/or risk factors such as job design, change management and successful people management.
- Making managers accountable for psychological health and safety in their teams and reward performance based on outcomes.
- Raising awareness on the effect of mental illness on job performance and early intervention on injury that can contribute to psychological injury in their team.
- Striving continuously to improve organisational culture by promoting a culture free of bulling and harassment with appropriate policies and procedures and early intervention and effective management of interpersonal conflict in the workplace at the earliest opportunity.
- Providing employees with access to information and support in health and safety and rehabilitation processes.
- Monitoring the success of intervention programs through data and outcomes so that any development of intervention programs are based on research based evidence and adequate periodic reporting is in place.
Patturajan said that the role of OHS leaders and managers in this is to facilitate the research and develop a strategic plan to address the root causal factors to reduce the incidence of psychological injuries in the workplace.
“In order to succeed, there is a high level of knowledge of operations and relationships with business decision-makers required,” she said.
“The role of OHS leader is to engage with senior decision makers to communicate and consult extensively across the organisation so that there is a consistent development and application of the intervention program across the organisation.”
It is also a good idea to consult with business managers on the psychosocial issues facing the teams and develop intervention programs in consultation with them, according to Patturajan, who added that it is also important to develop and facilitate a group of champions across the business units who are willing to embed the programs.
“OHS leaders should engage with an organisation’s leaders and stakeholders and articulate the business case for a safe workplace,” she said.
“OHS leaders can then facilitate the development of prevention programs to ensure a psychological safe workplace.”
Patturajan said there are nine steps that OHS professionals can take to assist in the above:
- Engage at the earliest with decision makers and stakeholders and establish senior leadership support
- Conduct a gap analysis and develop a risk profile of the organisation utilising analysis of OHS and HR data. For example, analysis of absenteeism, worker’s compensation statistics, cost of return to work, cost of injuries to the workplace
- Ensure intervention programs are customised for the organisation and utilise a risk management methodology/framework to develop intervention programs
- Implement an organisational OHS framework such as policies and procedures as well as near miss and incident reporting
- Use evidence-based research methodology to develop appropriate intervention programs (not all intervention programs are effective) and monitor progress
- Consider intervention strategies that integrate an occupational health and safety risk management framework and workplace health promotion through the implementation of health and wellbeing programs, as a primary intervention were effective in mitigating the risk of psychological injury
- Most importantly, consult and communicate with stakeholders throughout the process
- Adjust interventions of specific teams where there is significant evidence of potential psychological injuries
- Evaluate interventions on a periodical basis for outcomes
Article originally published by the Safety Institute of Australia.
For a copy of Patturajan’s presentation from the 2018 South Australia Safety Symposium: Psychosocial Risk and Safety Culture, please click here.