Views & Opinions

“Not just in the mind” – WHS covers risks to mental health

21 April 2017

“Not just in the mind” – WHS covers risks to mental health

Ben Urry, Associate Director

The traditional understanding of work health and safety ("WHS") is predominantly centred on the risk of physical injuries. Most cases that are reported, and most of the news headlines, focus on physical injuries or fatalities in “high risk” industries such as transport, construction, agriculture and manufacturing. The problem with this focus is it neglects a significant aspect of WHS that is on the rise, namely risks to psychological health or “mental wellbeing”. 

Two recent developments in Western Australia and Victoria attempt to “balance” this focus:

  • In Western Australia the risk of suicide and its management in the workplace lead the Western Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum to release a Bulletin last month dealing with suicide awareness in the resources sector ("Bulletin"). The Bulletin provides guidance on risk factors and methods for dealing with the risk of suicide in the workplace.
  • In Victoria WorkSafe Vic, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services, announced a $50 million initiative called “WorkHealth” that will be launched in early 2018. WorkHealth is an online portal that provides strategies and guidance to Victorian employers in relation to improving mental health in the workplace, including self-assessments and the ability to link with similar businesses online. A link to the portal can be found here.

What is the risk?

Statistics from both the WorkHealth Initiative and Bulletin highlight just how extensive mental health issues in the community are, and why businesses should make improving the mental health of their workers a priority:

  • Around 20% of Victorians experience mental health concerns.
  • Non-high risk industries are often more affected. For example, creative industry workers in Victoria suffer the highest levels of depression and twice the number of suicide attempts as the general population.
  • As set out in the Bulletin, ABS statistics for 2015 indicated that suicide was the 13th leading cause of death, resulting in the loss of 3,027 lives. It was the leading cause of death among the 15-44 year age group.
  • Past survey data reveals that each year approximately 370,000 Australians think about ending their lives, with 65,000 suicide attempts.

Risks to mental health in the workplace might include such things as:

  • Workplace bullying, harassment or discrimination;
  • Restructures and redundancies, especially if handled poorly and creating ongoing uncertainty regarding job security;
  • Performance management and discipline processes that are not structured or implemented appropriately;
  • Interpersonal conflict between colleagues that does not necessarily amount to bullying but may involve strong differences of opinion or criticisms of personal beliefs or habits;
  • Excessive hours leading to fatigue, as tiredness can reduce emotional strength and resilience; and
  • Return to work processes following injury. This includes being kept away from work unnecessarily as for some people keeping occupied assists with mental health.

Risk and hazard assessments should include an analysis of risks to worker mental health, and the actions that are required to eliminate or minimise these risks. 

Psychological risk specific example – suicide

In the Bulletin a range of warning signs were identified as possible red flags for suicide risks in the workplace. These factors can be used as a guide (as they are non-exhaustive) and woven into risk and hazards assessments:

  • “Being withdrawn and unable to relate to co-workers;
  • Talking about feeling isolated and lonely;
  • Expressing fears of failure, uselessness, helplessness, hopelessness or loss of self-esteem;
  • Impulsivity or aggression;
  • Dramatic changes in mood;
  • Fragmented sleep or obvious tiredness;
  • Dwelling on problems with seemingly no solutions;
  • Speaking about tidying up affairs;
  • Threatening to hurt or kill themselves;
  • Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide;
  • Expressing no reason for living or sense of purpose.”

Dealing with risk of work-related suicides

In order to eliminate or minimise the risk, the Bulletin suggests that businesses should contemplate implementing health/wellbeing policies, providing access to employee assistance programs or other counselling, restricting access to possible means of suicide such as medications, pesticides and chemicals, and implementing appropriate training programs that incorporate elements of suicide prevention (for example, in conjunction with bullying/harassment training).

Lifeline 131 114

Beyondblue 1300 224 636

MensLine 1300 789 978

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