Achieving mentally healthy workplaces

  • Market Insight 21 April 2023 21 April 2023
  • Asia Pacific

  • Health & Wellbeing

Thinking back on the last few years and where we are at now in 2023, it is clear that seismic cultural shifts have taken place in our workplaces. A world-altering pandemic and the ongoing technological innovation and advancements have transformed how we work and where we work for many of us.

These changes have given many workers enhanced flexibility but they have also led to an erosion of the boundaries between work and personal lives. 

What has come into sharp focus from all the mass disruptions to our work lives is the importance of good mental health. For many workers, they are now questioning the impact their job has on their professional and personal goals.

Law reform bringing mental health in the workplace to the fore

Across Australia, we have seen enhanced regulation relating to the management of psychosocial risks in the workplace. Work Health & Safety Regulations have now been amended in New South Wales,1 Queensland,2 Western Australia,3 Tasmania,4  the Northern Territory5 and the Commonwealth6 to have provisions explicitly requiring employers (or specifically, PCBUs) and their officers and directors7 to identify and control “psychosocial hazards” and “psychosocial risks” through a risk management process. Similar regulations have been foreshadowed in Victoria with stakeholder consultation currently underway.8

The closer focus on managing psychosocial risks in the workplace indicates that workers, regulators and the community at large have high expectations of organisations and leaders to not only guard against adverse risks to workers’ mental health, but further and more importantly, that our workplaces must positively promote and foster mental health.

What are “psychosocial hazards” and “psychosocial risks”?

The term “psychosocial” is used to describe the relationship and interaction between a person’s social environment and their internal thought processes. In the context of workplace psychosocial dynamics, we are specifically looking at how a worker’s mental health and wellbeing is affected by what is happening in their workplace.

It is important to recognise that the workplace can affect a person’s mental health in both positive and negative ways,9 and is influenced by many factors including:10

1. Hazards

When the new WHS regulations refer to “psychosocial hazards”, these provisions are capturing all the things in the workplace that could cause harm to a worker’s mental health. It is an extremely broad concept and the regulations do not have an exhaustive list of psychosocial hazards. However, some key elements that are important to think about include:11

What are each worker's job demands? How much support is there for workers? What happens when there is conflict or poor workplace relationships / interactions?
  • Do they have control over what they are doing and how that work is being done?
  • Is it clear to the worker what tasks they need to do as part of their role? 
  • What is the physical environment like? (Think about noise, light, temperature, time of day). Is it easy to concentrate and do the work?
  • Are workers exposed to traumatic information, material or events as part of their role? 
  • From colleagues, managers / supervisors, the PCBU?
  • Are worker's concerns being heard? 
  • How is change managed by the PCBU? 
  • Are workers isolated? 
  • Is work being done in a remote area?
  • How are workers rewarded and recognised for being good at their job?
  • Are there instances of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, violence and aggression from other workers, customers or others? 
  • How does the PCBU manage complaints? 
  • How are people who engage in misconduct treated? Are all people involved treated fairly? 

Note. The regulations specifically state “whether or not it may also cause physical harm.”12 

2. Risks

The concept of “psychosocial risks” refers to the exposure of a person to psychosocial hazards at work which increases their risk of psychological harm.13 Some psychosocial hazards have a very direct, imminent effect on mental health, for example experiencing a traumatic event at work. Other psychosocial hazards only become a “hazard” over a long period time when the demands of a person’s work begins to exceed their ability or resources to cope – called “occupational stress”.14

Social science researchers have found that people who report having higher levels of stress and people who perceive that stress impacts their health are both separately more likely to report having both poor physical health and poor mental health.15

It is therefore critical, when thinking about controlling and minimizing “psychosocial risks”, to consider the role of workers physically feeling stressed and also workers’ perceptions about stress in relation to whether certain things in the workplace are at risk of being or becoming a hazard and causing psychological harm.

Achieving effective mental health management

To meet their legal obligations, every organisation ought to review their current mental health management framework and systems for the purpose of identifying where proactive, positive mental health processes can be implemented and embedded, or where they have already been implemented, to review their effectiveness. 

Three aims of any review should be to: 

1. Nurture optimism and resilience

Supporting good mental health outcomes at work requires reinforcing and strengthening people’s ability to positively engage with stress. Social science research suggests that experiencing stress and adversity can actually create opportunities for strengthening a person’s resilience.16 Organisations should therefore be moving beyond just focussing on harm-reduction of psychosocial hazards within the workplace but to also think about how workers can engage with stress with appropriate scaffolding to build resilience.17

2. Encourage proactive leaders 

Effective leadership teams need to be on the front-foot, curious and keen to engage with mental health issues in their workplaces. Key questions that leaders should be asking themselves about mental health right now include:

  1. Do our workers come to work and feel good about what they do?
  2. How can we create the best conditions for our people?
  3. What do we need to do to improve mental health and wellbeing from before we hire a new worker through to after someone leaves our organisation?
  4. What can we control and implement in our workplaces to ensure our workplace promotes positive mental health?

3. Acknowledge that from little things big things grow

There is no quick fix to creating a mentally healthy workplace. Management of psychosocial risks has to be widespread and consistent which is achieved by having positive mental health initiatives at every stage of the employment lifecycle.18 Any mental health management system is about building an environment based on shared goals and objectives which will set up workers to be successful by enhancing their competencies.19

If organisations change their focus to asking how we can make positive changes and have positive impacts for workers’ mental health and wellbeing, they will be setting themselves up to have mentally healthy workplaces. In doing this, they will be better equipped to meet their work health and safety obligations as well.

1Work Health and Safety Amendment Regulation 2022 (NSW).

2Work Health and Safety (Psychosocial Risks) Amendment Regulation 2022 (Qld).

3Work Health and Safety (General) Regulations 2022 (WA) and Work Health and Safety (Mines) Regulations 2022 (WA).

4Work Health and Safety Regulations 2022 (Tas).

5Work Health and Safety (National Uniform Legislation) Regulations 2011 (NT)

6Work Health and Safety Amendment (Managing Psychosocial Risk and Other Measures) Regulations 2022 (Cth).

7As defined in the relevant work health and safety laws.

8WorkSafe Victoria (Website) <>.

9Harvey, S.B., Joyce, S., Tan, L., Johnson, A., Nguyen, H., Modini, M. and Groth, M., 2014. Developing a mentally healthy workplace: A review of the literature.

10For example, see section 55A of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 (NSW).

11SafeWork Australia (Website) <>

12For example, see section 55A of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 (NSW).

13SafeWork Australia (Website) <>

14SafeWork Australia, Managing psychosocial hazards at work: Code of Practice (July 2022).

15Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), pp. 677–684.

16Crane, M.F., Searle, B.J., Kangas, M. and Nwiran, Y., (2019). How resilience is strengthened by exposure to stressors: The systematic self-reflection model of resilience strengthening. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 32(1), pp.1-17.


18Tooma, Michael. Michael Tooma on mental health (2020, CCH Australia Limited).



Additional authors:

Nicola Irwin-Faulks, Associate

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