It’s about the cake: baking in psychosocial risk assessment for a mentally healthy workplace

Published Tue, Aug 17, 2021

A strong, supportive workplace, with a sense of shared purpose, clear objectives, manageable workload and responsive leadership, can help people thrive in their lives as well as their careers. Employees who feel they have psychological support have greater job attachment, commitment and performance, as well as satisfaction, loyalty and retention.

By contrast, high job demands, low job control, poor balance between effort and reward, injustices, role stress, bullying and low social support in the workplace are associated with an increased risk of developing mental health problems that are every bit as damaging as physical injuries. But unlike well-established systems to document physical injury risks, assessing the impact of the workplace on mental health is uncharted territory for many organisations.

The issue is however gaining new urgency. Following amendments agreed in May to the national model Work Health and Safety Regulations, employers will soon be obliged to systematically assess and mitigate psychosocial risks in the same way as physical risks, and subject to the same penalties for breaches.

At a recent CMHAA member event, we spoke with Dr Carlo Caponecchia, a Senior Lecturer and Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the University of NSW’s Faculty of Science. Dr Caponecchia has a background in psychology, human factors and safety, with expertise in psychosocial risks and safe systems of work. He described the latest developments in the emerging discipline of psychosocial risk assessment. Here we share four of his key take-outs.

Psychosocial (adjective): relating to the interrelation of social factors and individual thought and behaviour.

Oxford Dictionary

It’s not just about mental health

Dr Caponecchia prefers to speak about psychosocial safety, hazards and risks rather than about mental health. This avoids the stigma that persists in relation to mental health diagnoses, and also frames the issue broadly as encompassing many types of potential harm – not only those that result in a distinct mental health disorder. The ‘social’ part of psychosocial highlights the importance of interpersonal factors, not just how people respond individually to their workplace.

Build on what you have already

Rather than creating completely new processes, Dr Caponecchia favours integrating psychosocial safety pragmatically within an organisation’s existing safety structures, because this is familiar, and can be flexible and more likely to be sustainable. He advocates tailoring off-the-shelf workplace mental health programs to suit individual organisations’ needs, cultures and terminology, and he cautions against overreach; it is not necessarily the role of employers to assess individual employees for psychological vulnerability. He suggests the more appropriate focus is on safety management – including psychosocial risk as part of a holistic safety framework.

Commitment, credibility and competencies

Employers will need to check in with their workers about how the workplace affects their mental wellbeing, but surveys and focus groups will be viewed cynically unless people are confident the organisation will respond seriously to any issues they uncover. Diagnosing psychosocial risks without acting on them is “almost worse than doing nothing.” It may not be rocket science; many psychosocial risks are obvious and can be addressed through senior management competencies, for example by redesigning business functions or individual roles. But equally, leaders and managers should not overestimate their skills, says Dr Caponecchia: “People often think they have knowledge and expertise in this area by virtue of being human.”
image for Put the cake before the icing and Direction for companies starting out…

Put the cake before the icing

Dr Caponecchia used a simple analogy of making a cake when describing how to think about psychological safety in the workplace. He stressed that to create a mentally healthy organisation there first needs to be a solid psychosocial ‘cake’, grounded in realistic role design and workload, with clear and fair expectations, evaluations and rewards. And, whilst workplace wellbeing “icing”, such as stress management sessions, fruit bowls and yoga in the park, is very alluring, no amount of this will compensate for a terrible ‘cake’ underneath. It is essential that organisations prioritise the fundamental organisational and structural issues that make ‘good work good for you’.

Direction for companies starting out…

1. The Commonwealth Government’s People at Work portal, which steps organisations through psychosocial risk assessment using Australian language and terminology, and supports them to tailor a response. 2. The new (June 2021) ISO 45003 standard for managing psychosocial risks in the workplace, which highlights the opportunity not just to avoid harm but also to increase job satisfaction, employee commitment and productivity: “Everything you do to manage risk is working at more than one level. You’re not only controlling the risks but communicating something about your values, telling people what you’re actually about.”

Putting it into Practice

The CMHAA is made up of many member organisations who come together with the purpose of sharing insights and learning. We were fortunate to have two members share their experiences of implementing psychosocial risk assessment in their organisations.

King & Wood Mallesons

Berkeley Cox, Chief Executive Partner, and Jo McAlpine, Head of Talent and Capability outlined how they introduced psychosocial risk assessment at the leading corporate law firm.

Identifying the need

In 2018, Worksafe Victoria raised concerns about fatigue among King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) employees assisting clients in response to the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. This situation was difficult for KWM given the importance it placed on the health, safety and wellbeing of its people, but ultimately it provided a catalyst for renewing and enhancing its focus on this critical issue.

Getting started

Extensive business listening sessions were undertaken to deeply understand the day-to-day experiences of KWM’s people, alongside reviews of systemic, cultural and structural issues impacting wellbeing. A core team, led by the Chief Executive Partner, then decided to engage Positive Group, world-leading experts in psychology and neuroscience, and work directly with its Co-Founder and Director, Dr Brian Marien, to audit KWM’s psychological wellbeing. The group took a data-driven approach – both qualitative (listening to people, clients and experts) and quantitative (statistical methods to measure psychological health and wellbeing) to identify patterns and risk factors which were then used to inform strategy. They analysed 75,000+ unique data points which identified three critical components to psychological wellbeing at KWM:

  • Belonging, Loyalty and Job Satisfaction
  • Fairness, Recognition and Authenticity
  • Autonomy, Workload Perception, and Flexibility

Taking it to the next level

A deeper dive into the data showed negative assessments of workloads were not directly correlated to billable hours; the perception of workload as being reasonable or unreasonable was most closely linked to team dynamics and the support of KWM Partners. “The relationship with your Partner has the potential to be highly protective,” said Jo McAlpine. “Leaders can be role models, leading through flexing and trusting their team members, and demonstrating that trust.” The objective was not for everyone to be at the top of every wellbeing domain all the time, but to create an environment where people felt supported through work and personal challenges.

The findings were aligned to the three workplace wellbeing components:

  • Belonging, loyalty and job satisfaction: Lawyers who had regular conversations with their Partner regarding their career progression were more likely to report that their Partner cared about their wellbeing. Those who felt they could have an attractive career at KWM, or access to other ways to grow their skills and experience with the firm, demonstrated a higher sense of belonging, loyalty and job satisfaction.
  • Fairness, recognition, and authenticity: “People wanted to hear from their Partner or Manager that the fairness agenda is important to them,” Ms McAlpine said. “It’s not just the awards and $100 vouchers. It’s about the application of policies, getting time back and rest and recovery, whether these were being applied consistently.”
  • Autonomy, workload perception, and flexibility: People’s relationships with their Partner or Manager determined whether they felt empowered in their work and ability to manage the workload. Closer individual relationships promoted mutual trust, improving people’s sense of autonomy, coping and the perception that they can work flexibly.

Going forward…

KWM still has a distance to go to embed these new insights deeply into company policies, practices, and culture, said Chief Executive Partner Berkeley Cox, but the work to date has created a positive foundation. Listening to employees was not only about being open to constructive feedback, he said, but inviting them to recount positive experiences too.

“It’s about a strengths-based approach, and aspiration for the future. If you get this stuff right, you’re going to get better outcomes.”

Berkeley Cox, Chief Executive Partner KWM

PwC Australia

Kate Connors, Chief Mental Health Officer, and Nicola Lynch, Partner, Trust and Risk, Assurance, described how they are tailoring an off-the-shelf psychosocial risk assessment tool to assess PwC’s existing people systems.

Identifying the need

PwC Australia has nominated mental health as one of three priority social impact areas. Acknowledging the importance of “walking the talk”, PwC has committed to mental health and wellbeing as a central area of focus with its own 8000 employees across Australia.

Getting started

In 2015, Kate Connors, newly arrived as the firm’s first internal psychologist and Head of Wellbeing, identified the Green Light to Talk initiative, developed by PwC in the UK. The UK firm had launched Green Light to Talk as a way to reduce stigma, promote open workplace conversations and increase awareness of mental health support available within the organisation.

In 2018, PwC Australia launched Green Light to Talk, with leaders sharing personal stories about their own experiences with mental ill health, and advocating the importance of accessing professional support when required. This was followed by a commitment to establishing an organisation-wide community of trained mental health first aiders, known as Green Light to Talk Advocates. An internal review of the program has demonstrated a positive impact in the reduction of stigma and an increase in professional help-seeking, as measured by increased use of PwC’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

The positive momentum from Green Light to Talk created the opportunity for PwC to apply additional rigour, and a systematic approach to the management of psychological risks within the organisation, as a natural next step.

Taking it to the next level

Nicola Lynch, Partner, Trust and Risk had already been collaborating with Curtin University’s Future of Work Institute on a range of workplace mental health projects, including the practical application of the evidence-based Thrive at Work framework.

Thrive at Work was developed in consultation with industry, based on an extensive evaluation of the academic literature. It provides organisations with a clear and comprehensive set of strategies to effectively manage mental health within workplaces. There are three pillars to the framework - mitigate illness, prevent harm, and promote thriving.

PwC is using the framework to identify existing good practice, as well as gaps and opportunities for improvement, relating to:

  • Workplace system design: a review of all policies and procedures that mitigate illness, prevent harm and promote thriving.
  • Operating effectiveness: validating whether organisational policies and procedures are being applied and having the impact PwC intended on mental health.
  • Governance, data and reporting: reviewing PwC’s governance structures, data and reporting systems to assess against best practice and drive continuous improvement.

Going forward…

PwC will leverage this systematic assessment and gap analysis to:

  • elevate pockets of good practice to share across the business and create a more consistent application of what is working well.
  • validate and identify new and emerging mental health risks and controls for inclusion in the PwC risk register
  • continue collaboration with Curtin University to develop an 18-month roadmap, to embed the Thrive at Work framework, inform best practice and embed evidence-based workplace mental health strategies throughout the organisation.

“We have established a great foundation for conversations about mental health in our workplace, and are excited to collaborate with Curtin University to assess our systems with rigour, evidence base and a commitment to best practice.”

Kate Connors, Chief Mental Health Officer, PwC

Event Host

We would like to thank our member organisation, Johnson & Johnson, for kindly hosting this event


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