By Vaughan Granier

While many thought we would say goodbye to lockdowns as we farewelled 2020, the last year has proven otherwise. The current Delta COVID-19 crisis in New Zealand has meant more lockdowns for the country and has forced many employees to delay returning to the office and instead, working from home once again.

The increased isolation and uncertainty that Kiwis are experiencing in the current climate are a timely reminder for employers to recognise and appropriately respond to psychosocial risks that could affect their employees while they’re working from home.

Mental harm includes a range of symptoms that can affect how we feel, think, behave, and interact with others. Depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorders are just some of the effects of unaddressed psychosocial risk in your workplace. A lack of consistent contact with people in the workplace every day can also mean that these effects are harder to see and more likely to spin out of control.

So, what are the signs of a workplace stressor? Reduced social interaction, difficulty detaching from work, a tendency to overwork, and high levels of workplace pressure. And, if these stressors are not identified early or not appropriately managed, they’re at risk of compounding into more significant, long-term, workplace psychosocial hazards.

Here we answer three questions to help you better understand psychosocial safety and its increasingly important role in the modern workplace.

1. Employer’s role – psychosocial safety

Health and Safety at Work laws impose a duty of care on employers to ensure the health and safety of their employees in the workplace. This obligation extends to the home workspace too if this is where your employee carries out work.  While employers must ensure employees are physically safe, it’s equally important to recognise and implement measures to protect their mental well-being.

Continuing to manage the risks of remote work means that employers should:

  • Review existing workplace policies and procedures to ensure they equip employees with the information and tools required to protect psychosocial safety as reasonably possible;
  • Re-evaluate workplace surveillance measures, including the use of technology;
  • Determine if employees have been provided with clear, lawful, and reasonable directions about the performance of work from home including start and finish times, attendance to training in workplace health and safety policies and procedures, taking breaks and attending virtual opportunities to socialise with the remainder of the workforce; and
  • Revisit measures to protect psychological safety in an employee’s remote work and assess whether employees are aware of support programs like employee assistance and well-being services.

2. Do you have a mental health policy?

A workplace mental health policy is a relatively new concept in most workplaces, with many employers now implementing them. This policy can be designed to address psychosocial health in the remote workplace, and more broadly, to assist employers in relation to mitigating risk to mental well-being in the broader performance of work.

As lockdowns continue to be enforced, we see an enormous benefit to employers implementing a workplace policy that addresses psychosocial health and safety in the workplace.

3. Is your Health and Safety management system robust enough to manage psychosocial risks?

Today’s workplaces, regardless of industry or size, are all subject to stringent Health and Safety laws. We have entered a time that recognises incidents that are common in white-collar workplaces, such as workplace bullying and sexual harassment, as being Health and Safety issues. Failure on the part of leaders to responsibly and effectively implement workplace health and safety is putting them personally at risk of fines and criminal convictions.

Given that Health and Safety law does not discriminate between physical and mental safety in the workplace, it is critical that your Health and Safety management system mustn’t either. In an environment where employees are under significant mental demand working from home and in uncertain times, the employer must ensure they have a Health and Safety management system that can sufficiently identify, assess, control, and regularly review risks arising from psychosocial hazards at work.

We all know the saying ‘People don’t plan to fail; they fail to plan’, which is certainly true when it comes to Health and Safety at work. Managing Health and Safety is all about planning. The better the processes, policies, and procedures you have in place, the better equipped you will be to not only deal with health and safety issues but avoid them too. You can never be overprepared.  Without adequate protocols, both you, your officers, and your other employees won’t be able to minimise the risks of injuries and manage incidents effectively. Neither will you be able to prove, in hindsight, that you, as the employer, had done all you could to prevent an issue from arising.

For example, it’s critical to have the appropriate policies and procedures in place when it comes to mental health. It’s also equally important to ensure your employees can easily access these tools should they need them. Suppose an organisation’s culture is one of overwork and pressure from leaders. In that case, the employer is arguably creating psychosocial hazards for its employees that could lead to harm or an illness occurring. Remember, the same cultural pressure that makes the psychosocial hazard also prevents employees from reporting it – and this is a catch 22 situation that you must be very deliberate to avoid.

Businesses must adopt a best-practice H&S management process to mitigate psychosocial risks in workplaces. To give you a helping hand, we’ve created a free best-practice guide to help you implement a four-step approach.

HR Assured offers a complete best-practice H&S management system that caters for managing psychosocial risks through its cloud-based HR software, HRA Cloud, and its 24/7 Telephone Advisory Service. When clients partner with HR Assured, they can arrange an initial H&S audit of their business and a comprehensive report that identifies any gaps in compliance and recommendations on how to fix them, with the guidance of our expert advisors.

The Health and Safety module within HRA Cloud has tailored workflows that empower managers and employees to manage health and safety in the workplace, regardless of location, and is free from paper-based admin.

Do you have a question about H&S or managing mental health in the workplace?

For HR Assured clients, contact our 24/7 Telephone Advisory Service.

Not an HR Assured client and need some H&S advice? The team at HR Assured can support your business on a range of workplace matters. Contact us today to arrange a confidential, no-obligation chat.

Vaughan Granier is the National Workplace Relations Manager for HR Assured NZ. He has over 24 years of experience in international human resources, health and safety, and workplace relations management. With over 10 years working in New Zealand and Australian companies, he provides in-depth support to leadership teams across HR, Health and Safety, and employee management.