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Preventing Psychological Injuries In My Workplace:

What Are They, Why Are They Important and Where Do I Start?

 

Changes To OH&S Legislation

Western Australia, along with other states and territories, will soon adopt changes to their health and safety legislation. One significant change to the current legislation is the re-definition of the term health to encompass psychological health in addition to physical health. This change implies that employers and employees together share the responsibility of preventing physical injury and psychological injury in the workplace.

 

What Is A Psychological Injury?

According to Safe Work Australia, a psychological injury includes a fairly wide range of emotional, cognitive and behavioural symptoms that impact an employee’s life and can seriously affect how they feel, think and behave and connect with others. Common conditions that count as psychological injuries include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other anxiety disorders such as adjustment disorder, depression, and other mood disorders such as mania.

 

What Are The Symptoms Of A Psychological Injury?

Many conditions can be interpreted as a psychological injury, hence there is no single list of symptoms. However, listed below are symptoms associated with common conditions.

 

Common PTSD Symptoms:

 Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event
 Recurrent and distressing dreams
 Avoidance of talking about the event
 Irritable outbursts and angry behaviour, hypervigilance, and problems with concentration.

 

Anxiety Disorder Symptoms:

 Excessive worrying and anxiety, with difficulty controlling the worry
 Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
 Disturbed sleep.

 

Depression Symptoms:

 A depressive mood such as sadness, emptiness or hopelessness
 Diminished interest or pleasure in activities that used to bring you joy
 Feeling tearful
 Feeling restless or fatigued
 Disturbed sleep.

 

 

Who Is Most At Risk Of A Psychological Injury?

Anyone can suffer from a psychological injury; however, some occupations are more hazardous than others. In Western Australia, the top three industry categories for accepted stress-related claims are:

  1. Health Care and Social Assistance Workers (including hospital staff, support workers, aged care workers, youth workers, counsellors, and ambulance officers)
  2. Public Administration and Safety workers (such as emergency service workers, detention and
    correctional service workers, and fire fighters), and
  3. Education and Training workers (this category includes teachers and teacher’s aids).

 

What Has Stress Got To Do With A Psychological Injury?

Prolonged exposure to stress can result in a psychological injury. Stress, which can be a physiological or psychological response, occurs when workers perceive that their work demands exceed their resources and or abilities to cope with the work. Stress itself is not a disease; however, it can lead to ill-health when it’s experienced for prolonged periods.

The leading contributing factors to psychological injury are (in order):

  1. Work Pressure (a term used to describe a range of stressors including lack of role clarity, high workload, long working hours, emotional demands, poor organisational change management, and poor organisational justice.) And,
  2. Bullying and Harassment.

 

Is Occupational Stress A Serious Problem?

Work-related stress injuries or psychological injuries are forecast to overtake other work hazards with respect to poor health outcomes, financial costs (both direct and indirect) and how organisations go about their business.

Stress-related workers compensation claims are often associated with high costs and long duration.

Furthermore, the expansion of the definition of health to include a psychological component in the Model Laws means every workplace has a legal obligation to prevent psychological injuries.

 

What Impact Do Self-Care Practices Have On Preventing Psychological Injuries?

Self-care practices such as mindfulness meditation, time management, emotional detachment, lunchtime yoga, healthy living, finding work-life balance, and cognitive restructuring, all assist the employee in managing their stress response better, but they don’t prevent stress from occurring. These individual-directed activities form part of an integrative approach and are intended to provide at-risk individuals with the tools or resources to manage their stress response. Confusion can occur between the definition of stress and the symptoms experienced by staff. Often the symptoms of stress are thought of as synonymous with the causes of stress, meaning employees are blamed for their stress response rather than the actual cause of stress being addressed. The definition of stress implies an appraisal process undertaken by the employee to determine if they have the required resources and capacity to meet the demands of the task at hand. It is acknowledged, however, that where job demands exceed a person’s resources and capacity for a prolonged period, stress can result.

 

What Can You Do To Prevent Psychological Injuries?

The endorsed best-practice approach to prevent stress begins with a risk assessment to identify stressors or work pressures. While the risk assessment model to identify physical risks has been around for a long time, adapting the model to identify psychological risks has its limitations. The good news is Work Safe Queensland has developed a free-to-use validated questionnaire and how-to-guide that offers a step-by-step process specifically for psychological risks. You can find it by following this link Safe Work Queensland People At Work Risk Assessment. Identifying psychological risks can be a tricky business; you’ll need the collaboration of staff, management and senior leaders, but it is possible.

The World Health Organisation, Work Safe Australia, the Safety Institute of Australia, Comcare and WorkCover all endorse a holistic and integrated approach to the prevention of psychological injuries. Holistic and integrative means that responsibility for preventing stress is a collaborative effort involving the organisation and the employee.

 

For information on what your organisation could be doing to combat stress and prevent psychological injuries from occurring, see our article 10 tips to Prevent Psychological Injuries in the Workplace.

 

Author: Alison Bickell

For more information about Alison contact her via email – alison.bickell@bigpond.com.

Photo: Thanks to Antenna for making this photo available freely on @unsplash