Australia: Psychological vs. physical safety – adopting a systems perspective to understanding psychosocial risk factors in the workplace

Last Updated: 4 October 2015
Article by Hayden Fricke

Is your organisation adopting the right strategies to be truly effective at reducing stress and increasing wellbeing for all employees?

The modern workplace is becoming increasingly stressful for many people. It is characterised by high workloads, employees being bombarded with emails, texts and calls, people rushing from one meeting to the next and poor work/life balance with mobile phones glued to our hands.

The result: This environment is increasing the impact of negative psychosocial risk factors at all organisational levels. These are factors associated with the way individuals react with the demands of their job and their work environment. Common workplace psychosocial risk factors include high work demands, low job control, low co-worker support, poor quality of leadership, lack of role clarity, lack of management feedback and recognition and acknowledgement.

Research indicates that this environment is not only costing Australian businesses a significant amount annually, but we're also missing out on significant savings by not managing the impact of this environment on our employees. Recent reports by SafeWork Australia and Gallup Poll revealed:

  • Depression costs $8 billion per annum in Australia and $693 million of this is due to job strain and bullying.1
  • Workers with mild symptoms of depression take twice as many sick days.
  • $18 billion per annum would be saved across Australian business if the mental wellbeing of the 25% least psychologically healthy workers could be raised to the top 25%.
  • There is a significant link between workplace wellbeing and employee engagement - highly engaged organisations have 21% higher productivity, 37% lower absenteeism, 65% lower turnover and 22% more profitability.2

How are organisations managing these risk factors?

In our experience, unfortunately many organisations take a purely reactive approach to dealing with these issues. For example, they set up an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to enable stressed employees to seek counselling support anonymously; they run courses on resilience and stress management for employees; they buy weekly fruit bowls to encourage healthy eating and encourage personal ownership of employee wellbeing.

Whilst sometimes helpful to individuals, using only reactive approaches to managing stress and psychosocial risks is usually very ineffective in the longer term and only provides bandaid solutions.

In our experience, organisations that take a 'systems approach' which is focused on prevention, are seeing significant benefits across their organisation and finding this a more sustainable, long-term approach to stress and the management of psychological and psychosocial safety.

What is a systems approach?

A systems approach involves implementing a combination of more enduring, organisational and individual strategies that can be defined as primary, secondary or tertiary preventative strategies.

  • Primary preventative strategies are organisational level activities that identify and address stressors at their source.
  • Secondary preventive strategies are individual level strategies that help employees to manage stress.
  • Tertiary prevention strategies assist employees to recover/rehabilitate from stress-related illnesses.

While this approach requires a great deal of support and participation from members of an organisation and needs to be tailored very specifically to the organisation's needs and context, the long term benefits in the form of increased productivity outweigh this investment.

Implementing a systems approach:

Implementation of a systems approach will depend on a range of factors including your organisation's culture, history, leadership and business and financial circumstances. In our experience, a typical systems based intervention would include the following key steps:

  1. Begin with an audit of the current situation.
    We recommend using a survey approach to understand the causal factors behind stress and wellbeing. You may also like to collect further data through the use of interviews and focus groups as well as gathering data on issues such as absenteeism, turnover and WorkCover claims.
  2. Using the data collected, you may next want to consider running an action planning workshop with key stakeholders and decision makers to put a comprehensive 3-5 year strategy together. This strategy and action plan should identify the top 5-6 things [at each level, primary, secondary and tertiary] that the organisation can do to improve wellbeing and reduce workplace stress, whilst also building sustainable business performance.
    For example, amongst other initiatives we strongly believe that leadership development should be a critical part of your plan. We know that roughly 70% of culture is about the daily behaviours of leaders and therefore a program to create a culture of wellbeing needs to include all people leaders.
  3. These strategies should then be implemented over time with a disciplined project management methodology, including inbuilt review periods.
  4. Finally, the program should be monitored and evaluated for its success and modified along the way to cope with various changes that take place within the business over the period of the program.

What next?

If you are an HR leader and any of this resonates with you, we encourage you to use the information in this article to begin socialising the need to take a systems approach to your actions to make a real and positive difference to the wellbeing of your organisation.


  1. The Australian Workplace Barometer: Report on Psychological Safety Climate and Worker Health in Australia – SafeWork Australia (2012)
  2. Gallup Poll (2012)

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances. Madgwicks is a member of Meritas, one of the world's largest law firm alliances.

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