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COVID-19 Mental Health Info

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WHS laws cover risks to psychological (mental) health too. This is a stressful time for all Australians, and you must do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate and reduce the psychological risks to workers and others at the workplace. 

Under WHS laws, you must eliminate or minimise the risk to psychological health and safety arising from the work carried out by your business or undertaking as much as you reasonably can.  

To determine what measures to put in place, you should carry out a risk assessment and consider all the risks to psychological health in your workplace. You must also consult your workers and their representatives. Workers often know what the issues are and have ideas about how to manage them.  

Once you have consulted workers, determined appropriate measures and put them in place, continue to review how you are managing the risks to check your measures are working.  

This is an unprecedented time for all employers and workers. You may wish to seek professional advice on your WHS duties and how to meet them in your particular circumstances. The WHS regulator in your state or territory may also be able to provide further advice. 

What causes psychological injury? What are psychosocial hazards?

A psychosocial hazard is anything in the design or management of work that causes stress. Stress is the physical, mental and emotional reaction a person has when we perceive the demands of their work exceed their ability or resources to cope. Work-related stress if prolonged or severe can cause both psychological and physical injury. Stress itself is not an injury. 

For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced and increased a range of psychosocial hazards in the workplace, at a time when a range of other non-work related psychosocial risks are also occurring (uncertainty about future employment, social isolation etc.).  

Psychosocial hazards arising from COVID-19 include: 

  • Exposure to physical hazards and poor environmental conditions 
    • concern about exposure to COVID-19 at work 
    • poor management of WHS risks, lack of equipment and resources, such as insufficient appropriate PPE 
    • exposure to poor conditions such as heat, cold or noise in temporary workplaces 
  • Exposure to violence, aggression, traumatic events and discrimination 
    • increased work-related violence, aggression and incivility from patients, customers and members of the public  
    • serious illness or death of colleagues or clients e.g. nursing home deaths due to COVID-19 
    • racism, discrimination or stigma stemming from COVID-19 
    • self-isolation as a result of suspected workplace exposure
  • Increased work demand 
    • increased workloads e.g. supermarket home delivery drivers doing more deliveries and longer hours  
    • increased time at work e.g. additional shifts as production moves 24/7 to meet increased demands  
    • increased workload e.g. because of increased cleaning requirements or reduction of workers in workplace due to physical distancing requirements 
    • work required to adjust to rapid change e.g. buying new equipment or setting up new procedures 
  • Low support and isolated work 
    • working from home or isolation from others due to physical distancing or isolation requirements results in feelings of not being supported 
    • reduction in number of workers at workplace completing physical tasks to maintain physical distancing requirements 
    • failure (perceived or real) of employers not implementing new policies and procedure to address new working arrangements 
  • Poor workplace relationships 
    • increased risk of workplace bullying, aggression and harassment as pandemic continues 
    • workplace racism, discrimination, or stigma, including towards those that have had COVID-19 or are perceived to be a greater risk to others 
    • deterioration of workplace relationships as competing demands lead to less regular and effective two-way communication 
    • decreased opportunity for workplace social connections and interactions 
  • Poor organisational change management 
    • lack of planning as a result of the pace of the pandemic 
    • continual restructures to address the effects of COVID-19 and a corresponding failure to provide information and training, consulting and communicating with or supporting workers (e.g. manufacturing companies making different products or redeploying staff to meet changes in demand) 
    • insufficient consideration of the potential WHS and performance impacts due to COVID-19 
  • Increased emotional distress 
    • limitations on workers offering the same assistance to colleagues or clients they normally would or witnessing others’ distress in situations where they can’t access their normal services or support e.g. a cancer ward in a hospital has restricted visitors to reduce the risk to patients. The nurses see their patients and family struggle with this isolation.  

How can I eliminate and manage risks to psychological health? 

You should manage psychosocial risks in the same way as physical risks. See our information on managing the physical risks of coronavirus and other WHS risks including work-related violence and aggression for more information. Eliminating or minimising physical risks will also help to manage many psychosocial risks.  

The Infographic: Four steps to preventing psychological injury at work shows how the risk management process can be applied to psychosocial risks and detailed guidance is available in Safe Work Australia's Guide: Work-related psychological health and safety: A systematic approach to meeting your duties. See also our information about conducting Risk assessments for COVID-19.  

Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service, including information, an online community forum and phone counselling service is being provided by Beyond Blue with funding from the Department of Health. You should inform you workers of this support service. 

Tips for managing stress from COVID-19 

  • Regularly ask your workers how they are going and if anything is stressing them.  
  • Where workers are distressed about the challenging conditions caused by the pandemic, acknowledge their feelings about the situation and reassure workers they are doing what they can in the circumstances  
  • Stay informed with information from official sources and regularly communicate or share this information with workers 
  • Consult your workers and representatives on any risks to their psychological health and physical health and safety  
  • Support innovations to address the psychosocial risks where you reasonably can 
  • Provide workers with a point of contact to discuss their concerns  
  • Make workplace information available in a central place 
  • Inform workers about their entitlements if they become unfit for work or have caring responsibilities 
  • Inform workers about their rights under WHS laws, including the right to stop work in certain circumstances and the right not to be discriminated against or disadvantaged for raising work health and safety concerns in the workplace 
  • Proactively support workers who you identify to be more at risk of workplace psychological injury (e.g. frontline workers or those working from home), and 
  • Refer workers to appropriate work related mental health and wellbeing support services, such as employee assistance programs or the Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service

There are things that may stress your workers during the COVID-19 pandemic which may not be work related. Even though you may not have legal obligations in relation to that stress, you should take this into account, and if you are able to, offer workers increased support and flexibility to get through this difficult time. These stressors could include some or all of the following: 

  • Financial stress e.g. from reduced hours, loss of employment (such as their own secondary employment or their partners) 
  • Balancing work and caring responsibilities e.g. from trying to work while also meeting the needs of children and others unable to attend their usual activities or care arrangements  
  • Concern for vulnerable family members/friends e.g. from concerns they might get the virus or increased emotional stress at not being able to visit and assist elderly relatives 
  • Change to activities that support good mental health e.g. reduced exercise because of closure of gyms, reduced holidays because of travel limitations and reduced social interactions. 

My workers are worried about catching coronavirus. What should I do?

You should talk to your workers and understand more about their concerns. Once you understand their concerns, ensure you are doing all you reasonably can to eliminate and manage those concerns, see Safe Work Australia's Guide: Work-related psychological health and safety: A systematic approach to meeting your duties and also our information on managing the physical risks of COVID-19. 

For some workers, being more informed about COVID-19 may help ease their concerns. Provide them with relevant information on COVID-19 and remind them of all the measures you are taking in the workplace to reduce possible exposure. 

You should also remind them of all the services that are available to them for support, e.g. your employee assistance program and the Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service. It might also be helpful for them to talk to their treating medical practitioners, such as their GP. 

What can I do about customer aggression and the stress it’s causing my workers?

See our information on Work-related violence. 

My staff are working from home. How do I look after their mental health?

The duties under the model WHS laws apply to all workplaces, including where a worker is working from home. When you consider the risks to your workers psychological health and the control measures you will implement to eliminate or minimise those hazards, you need to do this for all your workplaces, including home workplaces. The same things may lead to stress working from home as at the usual workplace, but the controls you put in place may need adjusting (e.g. you might replace a regular staff morning tea, with a weekly email update or videoconference to keep people connected). Where workers are working from home you should consider the tasks you have asked workers to perform from home and whether doing these in relative isolation could cause stress, and what you can do to minimise that stress. 

Before you implement any control measures for working from home, you must consult your staff about how they are going, anything that is stressing them and what you can do to minimise that stress. For those working from home, it might be particularly helpful to consult individually, although that may not always be possible.  

What is essential though, is that there is regular and meaningful communication with your staff, including by telephone and videoconference where you can. Make sure you frequently check in on how they are going and if anything has changed. You should also make sure they know who to talk to if they need additional support or are feeling concerned. 

See also our information on Working from home. 

What should I do about bullying, harassment and strained relationships in the workplace? 

Talk to your workers, identify whether there is anything in their work that is causing strain, for example competing business demands. If possible, address the cause of the strain before it damages working relationships.  

If bullying, has occurred, follow your bullying policy or see the Guide to preventing and responding to workplace bullying.

You can manage the risk of workplace bullying by taking a proactive approach to identify early, any unreasonable behaviour and situations likely to increase the risk of workplace bullying occurring. 

You should implement control measures to manage these risks, and monitor and review the effectiveness of these measures. This could include activities such as: 

  • Regularly consulting with workers and health and safety representatives to find out if bullying is occurring or if there are factors likely to increase the risk of workplace bullying. 
  • Setting the standard of workplace behaviour, for example through a code of conduct or workplace bullying policy. 
  • Designing safe systems of work by clearly defining jobs and providing workers with the resources, information and training they need to carry out their work safely. 
  • Implementing workplace bullying reporting and response procedures. 
  • Developing productive and respectful workplace relationships through good management practices and effective communication. 
  • Providing information and training on workplace bullying policies and procedures, available support and assistance, and how to prevent and respond to workplace bullying. 
  • Prioritising measures that foster and protect the psychological health of employees. 

Your state or territory WHS regulator can provide support and advice on how to manage the risks in your business.  

In some circumstances, an order to prevent or stop a worker being bullied can be made under the Fair Work Act 2009?by contacting the?Fair Work Commission

The Australian Human Rights Commission investigates and resolves complaints (under federal laws) of bullying based on a person’s sex, disability, race or age. It can also investigate and resolve complaints of workplace bullying based on a person’s criminal record, trade union activity, political opinion, religion or social origin. 

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