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Psychosocial hazards at work

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Psychosocial hazards at work is a challenge for all of us. You have workplace rights, that few employees excise for numerious reasons. Don’t suffer in silence. Make the call. Get assistance. Get help.

Psychosocial hazards at work

Psychosocial hazards are aspects of work that have the potential to cause psychological or physical harm. This can include hazards like excessive working hours, bullying or harassment, extremely demanding tasks or a poor working environment. In this article, we outline the most common psychosocial hazards in Australian workplaces and the legal protections for workers.

We also explore two Australian court cases involving workers who successfully sought compensation for psychological injuries sustained at work. In one case, a worker whose workplace stress saw him develop a tremor and stutter received $1.1 million in damages.

Male-employee-head-back-in-a-chair.-Psychosocial-hazards-at-work.
Don’t give up. We all have a set back from time to time.

What are common psychosocial hazards?

Psychosocial hazards can lead to stress, which is a natural response when an employee’s work demands exceed their ability or resources to cope. While stress itself is not an injury, frequent, prolonged or extreme stress can cause psychological issues like anxiety, depression, PTSD and sleep disorders. It can also lead to physical injuries like musculoskeletal problems and chronic diseases.

Some of the most common psychosocial hazards Australian workers experience include:

  1. Excessive job demands that require extreme mental, physical or emotional effort. This includes unreasonable time pressures, high risks associated with mistakes and inadequate time for rest and recovery.
  2. Low job control that makes it difficult or impossible to influence how and when work is done. This can involve rigid work processes that do not allow flexibility or the application of personal skills and judgment.
  3. Poor support from managers or colleagues that makes it difficult to perform a job. This could include insufficient training, tools and resources or a lack of emotional support.
  4. Lack of role clarity characterised by uncertainty or frequent changes in job roles and responsibilities, which can lead to confusion and stress.
  5. Poor organisational change management that leads to insufficient consultation and communication during changes in the workplace.
  6. Inadequate reward and recognition that can include workers being rewarded for the work of others or unjust negative evaluations.
  7. A poor physical environment that creates unpleasant or hazardous working conditions.
  8. Workplace violence and aggression that includes threats or acts of violence from colleagues or customers.

9. Bullying and harassment that creates a risk to health and safety. This includes sexual harassment and discriminatory behavior.

10. Remote or isolated work where access to help and resources is limited.

11. Traumatic experiences like being exposed to death, injury or abuse.

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Frustrated employee seeking help.

    In Australia, both federal and state laws provide protections against psychosocial hazards in the workplace. The federal Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act 2011 was created to provide a framework for WHS laws in Australian states and territories. Each has its own WHS laws and codes of practice, with all but Victoria basing their laws on the federal Act.

    The WHS Act 2011 requires those conducting a business or undertaking to ensure the health and safety of workers, so far as is reasonably practicable. This includes eliminating or minimising psychosocial risks. In addition, the federal Fair Work Act 2009 includes protections against bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination at work.

    Employers must consult with workers to identify psychosocial hazards and implement control measures. This involves:

    • Assessing the likelihood and severity of hazards.
    • Implementing controls to eliminate or minimise risks.
    • Regularly reviewing and updating control measures.
    Many-older-employees-are-targeted-for-harassment-and-dismissal.-Psychosocial-hazards-at-work.
    Many older employees are targeted for harassment and dismissal.

    Reality TV “villain” wins landmark case against Channel Seven

    Psychosocial hazards in the workplace were the focus of the NSW Workers Compensation Commission case Nicole Elizabeth Prince v Seven Network (Operations) Limited [2019]. The case involved Nicole Prince, a former contestant on Channel Seven’s reality TV show House Rules. The Torquay, Victoria-based Ms Prince claimed she endured extensive bullying and harassment while taking part in the show in 2017.

    Filmed in Sydney, the show followed six couples as they renovated each other’s homes and then rated the results. Contestants were vying for a prize of $200,000. Ms Prince and her teammate, Fiona Taylor, were depicted as villains on the show, a portrayal that Ms Prince alleged led to severe psychological distress.

    Was she an employee or just a contestant?

    To determine if Ms Prince was eligible for compensation for the psychosocial hazards she faced, the NSW Workers Compensation Commission had to determine if she was in fact a Channel Seven employee. Her contract with Channel Seven explicitly stated that she did not have an employer-employee relationship. And therefore, she was not entitled to any workplace benefits or compensation.

    The Commission, however, disagreed. It deemed Ms Prince’s and Channel Seven’s relationship as “appropriately categorised as that of employee and employer.” This was because she was paid to be on the show. Ms Prince received $500 per week plus a $500 allowance during filming. It was also found that Channel Seven had exclusive control over her activities and required her to always be available for filming.

    Females-enjoying-a-coffee-and-their-photo-taken.

    Caption: Nicole Prince, right, and Fiona Taylor.

    Bullying and harassment encouraged by producers

    Ms Prince detailed the psychosocial hazards she faced while on the show. She told the NSW Workers Compensation Commission that she was subjected to “isolation, bullying, and harassment” by other contestants. She claimed that this was encouraged by the show’s producers.

    “As soon as Fiona and I entered the studio for the scoring of the teams’ work we could see and feel the hatred from the other teams,” Ms Prince said. Months later, Ms Prince found out that the ‘reveal footage’ that was shown to the other teams “only contained negative comments about their renovation work and none of the positive things that we had said.”

    Ms Prince recalled witnessing Ms Taylor being physically assaulted on set. When she complained to Channel Seven, the network allegedly threatened that she and Ms Taylor “would be portrayed negatively” on the show. “True to their threatening words, Channel Seven portrayed Fiona and I as bullies in the episode featuring our team which went to air on or around 17 April 2017,” Ms Prince stated.

    Work safety is important.-Work-safety-sign.
    Workplace safety and concerns can take various forms. Safety is more important than ever in the modern workplace.

    “I wanted to kill myself”

    After this episode aired, Ms Prince claimed she was subjected to online abuse on the Channel Seven Facebook page. This included receiving threats of serious physical assault. This left Ms Prince “fearful for my safety ever since.” Ms Prince said that she had not been able to attain work since the show aired. She was told by employers that they would not hire her due to her image as a bully on the show.

    Ms Prince said that she felt “devastated and worthless about the loss of my career.” She said that she “wanted to kill myself” and began drinking alcohol to “self-medicate.” Ms Prince also said that she felt “anxious about leaving her home for fear of being recognised by people.” She claimed having “regular incidents of negative reactions from complete strangers” and experienced “flashbacks of the workplace conflict.”

    Many-older-employees-are-targeted-for-harassment-and-dismissal.

    Caption: Many older employees are targeted for harassment and dismissal

    Files workers’ compensation claim

    Ms Prince filed a workers’ compensation claim in May 2017. She alleged she suffered from adjustment disorder, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder because of her experience on House Rules. Ms Prince said she endured a psychological injury due to Channel Seven’s “systematic isolation of myself and encouragement of bullying by co-competitors.”

    Channel Seven rejected liability for the psychological injury as it claimed Ms Prince was not an employee. In May 2019, Ms Prince’s legal representation appealed to the NSW Workers Compensation Commission to resolve the dispute.

    NSW Workers Compensation Commission decides

    The commission acknowledged the psychosocial hazards Ms Prince faced during her time on the show. It stated that there was “little doubt” she was placed in a “hostile and adversarial environment.” The commission also accepted that Channel Seven edited the show to “portray them in a certain negative light.”

    It was deemed that Channel Seven’s failure to remove “hateful” comments from its social media contributed to Ms Prince’s psychological injury. In fact, the commission said it was “extraordinary” that the network failed to remove the comments despite being told to by Ms Prince.

    “The breakdown in the applicant’s relationship with other contestants, together with the impact of her portrayal on television and social media, in my view explains the onset of her psychological injury,” the NSW Workers Compensation Commission said. Channel Seven was therefore ordered to pay Ms Price compensation.

    Farmer-spraying-chemical-or-fertilizer-to-young-tobacco-at-tobacco-plantation.
    Farmer spraying chemical or fertilizer to young tobacco at tobacco plantation. This is from a bygone era. Many employers are still stuck in the past. It’s called saving money. Stay away from toxic workplaces.

    Overworked employee left with tremor and stutter wins $1.1 million

    A worker who faced severe psychosocial hazards at work won big in the Supreme Court of Queensland case Ackers v Cairns Regional Council [2021]. Then 44 years old, Paul Ackers began working as the payroll supervisor for Cairns Regional Council in September 2014. His time at the Council ended when he was declared medically unfit to work about a year later.

    Mr Ackers alleged that he sustained a psychological injury due to working 12 hours of unpaid overtime weekly. He was also unfairly blamed for financial errors and subjected to an unwarranted performance improvement plan. Mr Ackers sought $1.3 million in damages, alleging that the Council had violated its duty of care. He ended up winning $1,099,132.69.

    The severity of his psychological injury was noted by the Supreme Court of Queensland

    “Mr Ackers’ psychiatric injury manifests physically in a tremor to his right forearm and hand, for which he wears a protective brace, and a stutter so severe it was considered helpful to receive his evidence in chief by affidavit,” the court said.

    Abandon-all-hope-sign.
    Many employees abandon all hope, don’t do it. Stand up for yourself, your family and the community.

    Understaffed, overworked and ignored

    Upon joining the Council, Ms Ackers knew that its payroll department was beset with inconsistencies in staff procedures and recurrent errors. He was hired to “fix the staff and fix the system.” However, the reality of the department’s condition soon proved overwhelming.

    Within a few months, the payroll department saw the departure of key personnel. By April 2015, three full-time employees had taken indefinite sick leave, leaving the department critically understaffed.

    Despite Mr Ackers’ repeated requests for skilled replacements, his appeals were largely ignored, forcing him to shoulder an unsustainable workload. The shortage of experienced staff significantly increased the stress and errors in the payroll process, further complicating his role. This caused a range of psychosocial hazards to Mr Ackers’ work experience.

    As the only remaining person capable of handling complex tasks, Mr Ackers was forced to work excessive hours late into the night and on weekends. His workload included at least two overnight shifts. The intense pressure began to manifest in visible signs of psychological distress.

    Employee-and-employer-shaking-hands.
    Employee and the employer have to work together. We have to understand each other.

    Subjected to complaints, unjust performance plan

    Another psychosocial hazard that Mr Ackers experienced was caused by the Services Union lodging complaints against him. The complaints, lodged in in May 2015, alleged serious workplace health and safety concerns. Following an workplace investigation, the Council substantiated three complaints against him and issued a written warning. Despite the procedural fairness of the investigation, the Court noted the emotional toll it took on Mr Ackers, which was well known to the Council.

    The most contentious issue, however, was the imposition of a Performance Improvement Action Plan (PIAP) on Mr Ackers in July 2015. The PIAP was initiated after errors were discovered in the payroll unit, some of which were not directly attributable to Mr Ackers. The Council’s approach to the PIAP was deemed by the Court to be carried out in bad faith and contrary to the employer’s processes and procedures.

    “Shaking and started to cry”: Mental health spirals

    Facing severe psychosocial hazards, in July 2015 Mr Ackers disclosed to his supervisor that he suffered from depression and was taking antidepressants. By September, he was visibly “teary and very upset” during performance management meetings.

     “I was just continually kicked until I broke completely,”

    Mr Ackers told the Supreme Court of Queensland.

    His colleagues also told the court that they had seen him crying and “not his usual self” at work. A colleague described Mr Ackers on one occasion as “upset, shaking and [that he] started to cry.” Ten minutes later, the colleague noticed Mr Ackers looked very distressed and “like he was going to throw up.” He then “bent over and appeared to be dry retching.”

    Warehouse-worker-after-an-accident-in- a-warehouse.
    Warehouse worker after an accident in a warehouse. Not all workplace injuries are that straight forward.

    Court delivers ruling

    The Supreme Court of Queensland acknowledged the psychosocial hazards Mr Ackers faced while at the Council. It found that the Council’s decision to impose the PIAP, despite their knowledge of Mr Ackers’ fragile mental state, constituted a breach of their duty of care. The court stated that “a greater degree of care may be required…where an employee is exhibiting signs of psychological distress.”

    It was accepted that employers are generally entitled to “assume normal fortitude on the part of an employee.” However, they must exhibit a higher degree of care when an employee is subjected to unusually stressful conditions. Also, when they display clear signs of psychological distress.

    The court identified multiple factors that should have alerted the Council to Mr Ackers’ need for additional support. This included the understaffing in the payroll unit, the excessive hours he was working and his visible signs of distress.

    “Flawed and unfair” improvement plan slammed

    The Council argued that the PIAP was justified and part of normal performance management. However, the Court rejected this argument. It noted that the PIAP was imposed on a “flawed and unfair premise” and did not adhere to the Council’s own administrative requirements.

    The Council’s failure to consider Mr Ackers’ psychiatric condition when deciding to place him on the PIAP was a critical oversight, the court found. “The accumulation of corporate knowledge of the workload [and] of signs Mr Ackers exhibited of psychological distress made the risk of a serious psychological injury reasonably foreseeable,” the Supreme Court of Queensland said.

    The court ruled that the Council’s breach of duty caused Mr Ackers’ major depressive illness. It stated that without the imposition of the PIAP, “it is unlikely [the plaintiff] would have suffered [the] psychiatric injury.”

    Employee-with-anti-bullying-sign.
    Many employers want to stamp out bullying and harassment. Make sure your employer is aware of what’s going on in the workplace.

    Have you faced psychosocial hazards at work?

    If you have been bullied, harassed, forced to work excessive hours or mistreated at work, give us a call. We at A Whole New Approach are Australia’s leading workplace mediators with over twenty years’ experience helping workers across the country stand up for their rights. Been dismissed due to a toxic workplace call us now.

    We’re experts in lodging Fair Work Commission claims and can help you understand if you can seek redress for what you’ve experienced.

    Call us today on 1800 333 666 for a free and confidential conversation.

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