Preventing psychological injury; the next workplace safety frontier

Preventing psychological injury; the next workplace safety frontier

There was a time when fire fighters, running into a burning building, would protect themselves from lung damage by placing a wet rag or handkerchief into their mouths. The standardised use of the breathing apparatus as personal protective equipment has dramatically controlled this risk.

There was a time when coaches sent concussed football players straight back out onto the football field as soon as they could stand up. Protocols around risk assessment, coupled with both reactive and proactive concussion management have begun to positively impact this risk.

There was a time when we thought it was the worker’s obligation to accept the nature, pace and interpersonal politics of the workplace no matter what they were or what impact they had on the individual. Indeed, if they couldn’t handle it they should leave. From our experience, some workplaces are beginning to respond to the risk of psychological injury, now growing in prevalence and cost, but most are not yet able to respond in any systematic and strategic fashion to control this risk.

Changing times

Times have changed; prompted by better understanding of what it is that causes damage to people. It is vital for us to stay abreast of these changes if we want to keep people safe in our workplaces.

Initially it was hard to see the changes in practice needed to keep firefighters and football players safe because the risk of physical injury appeared to be an inevitable consequence of their roles. These are physically demanding, potentially life threatening activities, so the inherent risk seemed more acceptable. Yet through scientific breakthrough and better understanding of these risks and how to control them we have made discernable advances in safe practice.

So it is with the prevention of psychological injury in organisations. It has been hard to see how to minimise the risks that seem to flow as a consequence of people working together. This has resulted in the prevailing view that the onus of safety lies on the individual at risk. When you stop to consider this, it’s a bit like expecting the firefighter of old to bring their own hanky in order to manage their own safety!

Our Workplace Health and Safety laws clearly stipulate a duty of care and an obligation for employers to create a safe place of work and this responsibility is shared with the individual. Organisations are required to be both proactive (the notion of ‘positive duty’ in recent legislation) and reactive (i.e. take ‘reasonable action’ when a hazard is identified) in their management of both physical and psychological safety. 

Factors that impact on psychological injury risk

In most workplaces there are reasonably sophisticated systems for reporting and managing physical injury risk. We are really just beginning to understand that this is only part of what it takes to keep people safe at work. The next big frontier is in the active management, reporting and prevention of psychological injury. We now have a good understanding of the factors that have the potential to cause psychological damage to people in our workplaces. We know that the supportiveness of supervisor and co-worker relationships, the nature and pace of work, clarity of job role, ability to utilise personal skills, quality of feedback and the workplace culture all play an important role in peoples’ wellbeing at work. So why hasn’t this knowledge translated into active risk mitigation strategies for psychological injury in many workplaces?

Whose problem?

The reality is that the individual walks through the door with individual psychological factors that predispose them to more or less risk and we don’t measure these before we take someone on, so it’s probably very tempting to attribute the issues to the individual rather than the workplace if a problem should arise. Psychological issues are harder to see than physical issues and therefore the temptation is to say they were pre-existing and not as a result of what’s gone on in the workplace. This would be like saying to the firefighter your lungs were already poor when you ran into that burning building, so it’s not our problem. Do we really dispute that being in a burning building is bad for lungs? Should we really dispute that being in a toxic work environment where you are marginalised, undermined, threatened or bullied is bad for your psychological health?


1. Attitudes: We need to start treating psychological safety at work as a problem for leaders and employees.  It needs to be treated as seriously as physical safety and one that the organisation as well as the individual own. 

2. Adopt a Risk Management framework: If a risk management framework is applied to psychological risk, in the same way it has been used to manage physical risk, it becomes slightly easier to see a way forward.  We know what the hazards in workplaces are. Now we need to get better at assessing the risks and responding to them in a timely and appropriate way and yes, sometimes this will require us to change the way we do things.

3. Measurement: We need to have a better handle on the current psychological health of the workforce and what the risks are.  What is the state of employee wellbeing and what factors are causing and threatening that state?        

4. Interventions: As a result of what we identify, we may need to change some of our established systems and habits of work which may place people at psychological risk, such as:

  • Expectations of work hours or work styles that exert unreasonable pressure;
  • Ambiguity in job roles and job security;
  • Functional isolation - disconnected teams separated by location and/or functionality;
  • Leaders who don’t feel comfortable managing performance or conflict;
  • Performance feedback that constantly focuses on what we can’t or don’t do well.

Where hazards have been identified, we need to take a more sophisticated, multi-layered approach to intervention that takes into account both reactive and proactive responses. In relation to this, the following table outlines four levels of intervention.


Helpful Questions                            
  • What is the specific behaviour that is causing risk to the individual?
  • How can we immediately stop this behaviour from impacting on them?
  • What support can we provide for the individual?
Intervention Type
  •  Reactive and or Proactive
Intervention Examples
  • Temporary change to reporting line until issue can be investigated
  • Peer support



Helpful Questions:                                        
  • What is the interpersonal behaviour that is causing risk?
  • What would assist the individuals involved being able to work effectively & safely together?
Intervention Type:
  • Reactive
Intervention Examples:
  • Investigation
  • Mediation
  • Workplace conference




Helpful Questions:                                                   
  • What is the behaviour of the team that contributes to risk?
  • What specific behaviours would help the team to support team members and be effective and productive?
Intervention Type:
  • Reactive and or Proactive
Intervention Examples:
  • Team Charter Workshop
  • Team Performance Workshop




Helpful Questions:                                                     
  • Are there some organisational factors that are causing risk?
  • Are our people aware of their individual and collective obligations for maintaining psychological safety in the workplace?
  • Do our people have the skills to be able to work in a way that is safe?
  • Are our systems of work putting undue pressure or strain on people?
Intervention Type:
  • Reactive and or Proactive
Intervention Examples:
  • ‘Respect in the Workplace’ training program
  • Mental Health awareness program
  • Strategic Change Management

Action is Required

What we know about minimising risks of physical injury in our workplaces needs to be applied in the psychological injury arena. We can imagine a time when we will look back at what we currently do to people at work and regard it with the same amount of amazement as we now have at old firefighting practices. Remaining psychologically safe at work should not just be left to chance or happenstance but to good risk management practice.



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Guest Wednesday, 26 June 2019