Addressing psychosocial risks through protective strategies

17 October 2022 3 min. read
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Attention for psychosocial risks has ramped up in recent years, in particular in the slipstream of the Covid-19-pandemic. Rachel Clements, Co-Founder and Director of Psychological Services at Centre For Corporate Health & Resilia, explains how organisations can address these risks through strong protective strategies.

At the Centre for Corporate Health, we assist our clients in addressing the various psychosocial risks present in their line of work.

More recently, talk of psychosocial risks has come to the forefront, with many organisations trying to navigate what the new WHS Act reforms, new codes of practice and new legal precedence (such as the Kozarov versus Victoria high court ruling) mean for them to ensure the wellbeing and safety of their employees.

Rachel Clements, Director of Psychological Services, Centre for Corporate Health

In terms of an organisation's maturity in addressing psychosocial hazards, many are at the initial stages – using an online tool to identify their risks and logging them. However, if organisations are to truly identify and address the risks in their workplace, a more nuanced and tailored approach is required as no two organisations are the same, even if they are in similar industries.

For example, if a law firm has a team working on a particularly distressing matter, exposure to trauma or vicarious trauma is an obvious hazard. It is also unlikely to be a hazard that can be eliminated out of many lawyer’s roles. However, the risk level will differ from firm to firm and even team to team, depending on the cumulative impact of existing risk factors and protective factors.

When there are numerous accumulative risk factors present and minimal protective factors the risk level will be high. When vulnerabilities are countered by strong protective factors the risk level will be low. But how do you know what vulnerabilities and protective factors are currently at play?

Vulnerabilities may be present for individual employees or entire teams and often require an independent psychological provider to establish these to gain a true and unbiased state of play.

Some examples of vulnerabilities that may be increasing the risk level of a psychosocial hazard include age (young and older workers), disability, race/ethnicity/nationality, gender, sexual orientation, language, education, family status, previous exposure to trauma, discrimination, poor interpersonal relationships, poor work/life balance and lack of career prospects, to name just a few.

So, to reduce the risk of a hazard you need to counter these vulnerabilities with protective factors. There are some protective factors that are important across the board no matter what the hazard or vulnerabilities are, these are things like establishing a psychologically safe team culture and destigmatizing help-seeking behaviours to stop little problems from developing into poor mental health concerns.

But there are also protective factors that can be quite specific and nuanced. For example, one of our client organisations that we work with, identified vicarious trauma as a significant hazard in their line of work so established a tracking system that would notify managers if a team member was working on too many cases that were deemed to contain traumatic and sensitive content.

When this was identified it then triggered a workflow whereby the manager was required to engage in a wellbeing conversation with their direct report and ensure they were linked in with appropriate resources and support services.

So, when it comes to a psychosocial hazard that is an inherent part of a role it is time to shift the focus from eliminating the hazard to managing the risk by addressing vulnerabilities where possible and establishing strong protective strategies.

While changes in the model WHS laws must be adopted by each state or territory’s jurisdictions before they become legislation, this is something many are expecting to occur in the not-too-distant future with Victoria seeming to lead the way.

So now is the time for organisations to not just be viewing psychosocial risks as a WHS ‘tick the box’ procedure, but rather teaming up with experts to establish what hazards are truly at play and what can be done to reduce the risk to their people’s wellbeing.