Psychologically healthy workplaces: a problem of work design

Published: Monday 12th September 2016

There is a high base prevalence of mental health disorders in the community. The ABS data shows around 45 per cent of Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime and about 18 per cent, or one in five, have experienced it in the previous 12 months.

Kirsten Way is Senior Lecturer and Discipline Leader for Occupational Health Safety and Environment and Member of the Centre for Sustainable HRM and Wellbeing, which is a Research Centre within the Faculty of Law and Business at Australian Catholic University.

Kirsten Way:

From a ‘health and safety duties’ perspective what we’re most interested in is what proportion of people have mental health disorders that are attributable to work, and are therefore preventable. Research in that area found that around 15 per cent of Australia’s incidence of depression is attributable to work (13.2 per cent for males and 17.2 per cent for females). It’s the lower status jobs that have the higher risk, and that’s what the theory tells us as well. What that data means is that workers compensation claims actually underestimate work-attributable depression in Australia about 30-fold[i].

There are a number of reasons why people choose not to put in a worker’s compensation claim for a mental health disorder. There are also people with untreated mental health conditions in the workplace. People soldier on without getting treatment or without getting the support they might otherwise need and that has very real implications for those individuals and also for productivity in the workplaces. There are some great studies that have looked at the cost-benefit of creating a mentally healthy workplace. One Australian paper found a return on investment of $2.30 for every dollar spent on these workplace interventions[ii]. And that return is felt across the board, not just by those whose mental health condition is  attributable to work.

The mental health disorders that are attributable to work might be those that employers have a duty to manage so far as is reasonably practical under the health and safety legislation. But, there is that other side of the equation, that there’s quantifiable benefits of taking action across the board and that’s what these studies have looked at; the return on investment applies regardless of whether the mental health issues were caused by work or not. And these benefits in loss reduction to a business aren’t small – for example, a recent study found that one in five Australians had taken time off work in the last twelve months because they were feeling mentally unwell[iii].

When does work stop?

It’s interesting and possibly intuitive that there is a clear correlation between an increase in the number of hours spent on IT-mediated work, outside of work hours, and burnout, job dissatisfaction and other indicators of  psychological distress.

There are individual differences and preferences for segmenting work and family. Some people prefer to have the option to respond to things as they happen, and in doing so, feel  they cope better with work demands. However other people have a very negative perception of ICT and see it as an intrusion into their life that interacts to make them less well.

There’s clear evidence too that if people have a very strong identity with their role they are more likely to accept the intrusion of work into home life. So for example, a doctor, or an academic, or a CEO might have a strong role identity and feel like they don’t have to have that barrier between home and work. But again, if we look at the evidence, even if you control for those things, the number of hours that people are spending on technology out of work time, on work, has a correlation with burnout[iv].

When it comes to what duty the person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) has in relation to managing the risk, they should really have policies and training in place to ensure there is at least some barrier between work and technology-mediated intrusion into home life. Even if you are the CEO, you need to protect some of that personal time to maintain psychological health.

Indeed it’s interesting that the CEOs who protect their personal recovery time well often have better performance because they are better at managing their own workload and compartmentalising; they’ve got the psychological space to recuperate and therefore they perform better when they are at work.

What to do?

It’s one of the duties of the PCBU to manage the risk of psychological injury as far as reasonably practical, so absolutely what they should be doing is looking at the aspects of job design we know to increase the risk of psychological illness -  high work demands (whether it’s ICT mediated or not), low levels of control, poor support, poorly managed change, poorly managed relationships, lack of recognition and reward and organisational injustice.

What most people are doing in this area is focusing on resilience training or individual interventions where they’re trying to help people cope with work stressors as opposed to designing and managing the work so that it’s achievable and employees don’t need to have these extra coping or resilience strategies to be able to do the work. It’s better not to have to deal with these problems in the first place.

Change has to come from the top down. Leadership commitment and resourcing and the demonstrated role modelling of senior leaders is absolutely integral in this space as it is in any other health and safety space.

If we look at it through the occupational health and safety lens, where we are talking about the hierarchy of control, they need to be heading up to the top of that design triangle rather than focusing on individual coping and behavioural interventions.

It’s a mental shift required to look at this holistically, from an organisational perspective. It always comes back to the job design and how work is managed.

Research cited:

[i] Keegel, T., Ostry, A., & LaMontagne, A. D. (2009). Job strain exposures vs. stress-related workers’ compensation claims in Victoria, Australia: Developing a public health response to job stress. Journal of Public Health Policy, 30, 17-39.

[ii] Beyond Blue, PWC. (2014). Creating a mentally healthy workplace: Return on Investment.

[iii] Beyond Blue, TNS. (2014). State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia.

[iv] Park, YoungAh; Fritz, Charlotte; Jex, Steve M. (2011). Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol 16(4), pp. 457-467.